Dream or Reality? Electrification of the Chemical Process Industries | AIChE

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Dream or Reality? Electrification of the Chemical Process Industries

Electricity could be the key to the next industrial revolution.

The United Nations (UN) established the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, motivating governments around the world to commit to decreasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) (1). However, from 2000 to 2018, global GHG emissions increased by an average of 2.4% per year (2). Over the same period, the global direct industrial CO2 emissions increased even more, by about 3.7% per year (3).

In the U.S., approximately 50% of industrial emissions are related to the mineral, chemical, refining, iron, and steel industries (Figure 1) (4). In an effort to curb such emissions, the 2016 Paris Agreement set targets to limit global warming well below 2°C (relative to preindustrial levels) (1), which will require a complete transformation of industry (5).


Figure 1. In the U.S., the mineral, chemical, refining, iron, and steel industries are among the largest producers of carbon dioxide emissions. Data sourced from (4).

Strategies to achieve emissions targets include phasing out nonrenewable energy resources; transitioning to a circular economy; greening electricity production; and electrifying heating, transportation, and industrial processes (1, 2). Electrification of the chemical process industries (CPI) is already gradually occurring. Intensified separations processes, plasma technology, ultrasound microwaves, and electric arc furnaces have contributed to energy-efficient, highly selective, and compact processes, drastically reducing capital costs and waste generation (6). Process intensification (PI) innovations in combination with a greener electric grid can help to establish cleaner and more sustainable production processes across the CPI. The RAPID Manufacturing Institute is helping to speed the development of PI initiatives in the CPI, including electrification (7).

This article evaluates if the extensive electrification of the CPI is realistic, and highlights the major challenges and opportunities for electrification for the production of hydrogen and base chemicals, as well as for carbon capture and utilization.

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