Humankind faces an obvious dilemma: The global economy and thus wealth and economic development for billions of people depend on fossil fuels. At the same time, their ubiquitous use threatens humanity on an unprecedented scale. Burning fossil fuels adds billions of tons of CO₂ to the atmosphere each year, making it the main cause of anthropogenic climate change. The effects of this climate change are not in the distant future. They are already being felt today in the form of rising sea levels and extreme weather with floods or droughts threatening crops, fresh water supplies, and wildlife. It is painfully clear that we need to take drastic measures to mitigate global warming, if we want to preserve a livable planet for future generations!
A term that keeps popping up in this context is “decarbonization”. Taken literally, it would imply an elimination of carbon from any economic activity or industrial process. That is of course a strong simplification of the actual ambitious goal behind the term. In truth, decarbonization describes the transformation of industries, particularly the energy sector, to cut CO₂ emissions and eventually reach „net zero” and an emission-free society. This can only be achieved by replacing processes that release the greenhouse gas and compensating any CO₂ emissions that cannot be cut.
For the energy sector at least, decarbonization might be a useful blanket term for all measures aimed at reducing carbon or rather carbon dioxide. For a specialty chemicals company, however, the term decarbonization is misleading. That is because carbon is and will always remain a crucial building block for any organic compound. Carbon is not just the basis of all life as we know it, making up about a third of the weight of the human body, for example. It is also the backbone of countless modern materials and compounds. A widely used polymer, for example, is polyamide-12. Its chemical formula (C12H23NO)n reveals that, next to hydrogen, carbon is the predominant atom in the material.
So while carbon emissions must undoubtedly be reduced or, better yet, eliminated completely, we nonetheless need carbon atoms for most of the materials that surround us. That is why we in the chemical industry use the term “defossilation.” It more accurately describes the goal of becoming independent of fossil raw materials.
The strategy to cut emissions in the energy sector is straightforward: Fossil fuels used to generate electricity can be substituted with renewables such as wind and solar energy. Reductions in energy consumption by improving efficiency and the advent of alternative fuels such as hydrogen will boost the transformation further. The chemical industry will be a key enabler in realizing all of this. Any functional hydrogen ecosystem, for example, will need green hydrogen produced at competitive prices. It will also rely on safe ways to transport and store large amounts of hydrogen. Only innovative chemistry can make all of this possible. In fact, we at Creavis are driving some of the key innovations to support a future hydrogen economy. One example is our anion exchange membrane (AEM) which lowers the cost of producing green hydrogen.
But defossilation goes much further. The chemical industry itself still relies on fossil feedstocks for much of its carbon. We need to tap into alternative sources to make our industry sustainable and climate neutral. One vision is a fully circular economy, which turns waste into valuable raw materials. That way, carbon atoms are kept in a continuous loop, reducing the need to mine for additional carbon. Again, chemistry holds the key by enabling the necessary technologies to efficiently recycle all kinds of plastics, for example.
Thanks to chemical ingenuity, even carbon dioxide itself is a feedstock of interest. Biotechnological and chemical processes, some advanced at Creavis, allow for CO₂ to be transformed back into organic molecules instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. Apart from such “artificial” processes that bind CO₂, natural photosynthesis and the resulting biomass have large potential as a sustainable carbon feedstock for the chemical industry.
At Creavis, we have dedicated one of our three Incubation Clusters entirely to innovation that will enable industries to become independent of fossil fuels and to enable a climate-neutral hydrogen economy. This cluster is consequently called Defossilation.