Carbon-neutral production of plastics is at the core of this SPIRIT theme led by Asset Transformation Manager Mikko Rönkä from Borealis. We requested Mikko to walk us through this SPIRIT theme which looks into developing carbon-neutral plastics manufacturing processes and identifying sustainable feedstock at the Borealis plant in Kilpilahti. The work done in this R&D theme plays an important role towards implementing the ambitious climate goals of Borealis — aiming to expand across the SPIRIT ecosystem and plastics industry at large.
According to Mikko Rönkä, the key target of this R&D theme is to reduce CO2 emissions of Borealis’ own production. He says: “We are an energy-intensive industry and Borealis is among the top-10 CO2 emitters in Finland. We want to change that and transform our production carbon neutral. The work to be done in this SPIRIT programme theme focuses on that change and we are looking for many different partners among research organisations, technology providers and innovative start-ups to support us in driving this remarkable change of the plastics industry within the SPIRIT programme.”
This is the future scenario in short: In polyolefin production, the feedstock is first split into smaller molecules in a process called steam cracking taking place in high-temperature furnaces using fuel gas as their source for energy. This creates the CO2 emissions we are discussing. One solution towards a carbon- neutral process could be to change the energy source to green electricity or hydrogen and renew the crackers for the new technology. Another option could be to capture the carbon dioxide generated by the crackers and store it for further use or use it directly as feedstock to produce olefins (ethylene or propylene), which in turn can be used to produce polyolefin plastics. That process will, by the way, also need hydrogen which is in key role for this theme.
Strong linkages to other SPIRIT R&D themes
There are close linkages to the other themes in the SPIRIT programme. The Renewable feedstock theme is particularly important. This theme will help make end products based on renewable feedstock, but it may also help to transform the CO2 emissions to biogenic emissions
The programme will also study transforming CO2 emissions to feedstock, in other words, closing the loop from emissions to feedstock. A new ecosystem project called ForestCUMP was just kicked off regarding this topic with several partners. The Recycling R&D theme can also be combined in an energy-efficient way to Borealis processes, which will help solve two issues at the same time: plastic recycling and carbon-neutral production.
As to why this work is so important, Rönkä explains: “First and foremost, we want to protect our environment. Secondly, this provides continuity to our business and can open totally new kinds of business opportunities. Thirdly, it is exciting to be a part of the biggest change in the whole industry in decades.”
Research activities to explore sustainable production of chemicals
Borealis is currently evaluating the best-case scenarios for each production location in terms of sustainable plastics production. The company is a part of a consortium studying electrical cracking with the aim to make industrial scale piloting and preparing for commercial plants already in a few years. For the SPIRIT work they have just hired two Master’s Thesis workers to gain a deeper understanding of carbon-neutral production methods.
Borealis is also setting up a significant company-wide research programme to explore sustainable production of base chemicals for plastics. SPIRIT is an important part of that research programme.
The work cannot be done alone – innovative partners welcome
Mikko Rönkä reminds on the important role of many different partners in this R&D theme: “While this activity may easily be seen as Borealis-only activity, it is clear that we cannot do this alone.” He continues: “We want to team up with universities and research organizations to study alternative feedstock and alternatives to steam cracking, and we need technology providers to develop alternative production technologies. We also want to collaborate with other industries to turn carbon to valuable streams. There is also a need for infrastructure companies e.g. to provide sufficient electricity to transform production and also to manage changes in fuel gas and steam production. Finally, innovative startup companies are really welcome to provide novel solutions.”
Mikko Rönkä is looking forward to working with all potential partners in this R&D theme and anticipates wide interest and great opportunities in global markets in activities aiming at carbon capture and valorization. He thinks that we have all the possibilities in Finland to be the first country in the world to convert plastics production towards carbon neutrality.
Do you have what it takes to join the SPIRIT programme? Send us a message through the contact page so we can learn more about your area of expertise!