Photographer: Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images

Promise of Turning Pollution Into Cash Spurs Industry in Germany

  • ThyssenKrupp looks at ways to reduce cost of emissions
  • Investment of $1.1 billion to deliver commercial plant in 2030

From cement and steel producers to the makers of plastics, European companies facing increasingly stringent limits on industrial emissions are trying to come up with creative ways to transform the pollution they produce.

HeidelbergCement AG is using blast-furnace slag in concrete, aiming to cut carbon dioxide emissions by a quarter this year compared with 1990. ThyssenKrupp AG plans to re-purpose gases emitted by its steel smelter into saleable products such as methanol. And Bayer AG’s Covestro plastics unit is chemically converting CO2 into an ingredient in the foams used in mattresses and sports equipment.

The efforts, all in place before the scandal on cheating emissions rules at Volkswagen AG, represent a new thrust in the drive to limit global warming. Companies being pushed to trim emissions are trying to do so in a way that also boosts profit. With envoys from more than 190 nations working with the United Nations to tie down a deal this year that will limit pollution everywhere, the pressure can only get more intense.

“I don’t see a chance for a CO2 intensive industry in Europe if we aren’t able to demonstrate a solution,” said Reinhold Achatz, ThyssenKrupp’s head of research and development, in an interview in Essen.

ThyssenKrupp’s project is set to cost as much as 100 million euros ($113 million). It will involve five companies listed in Germany’s benchmark DAX index: Bayer AG, BASF SE, Siemens AG, Linde AG and EON SE. 

As early as next month, two 20-foot boxes will be installed at ThyssenKrupp’s main steel mill in Duisburg that will collect and analyze gases including hydrogen, methane and nitrogen. Those gases currently are burned at the plant, to generate electricity, and that leads to more carbon emissions.

The gas molecules collected will be analyzed by scientists at the Germany-based Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion. Their aim will be to chemically manipulate them as a step toward creating methanol for synthetic fuels and fertilizer for farmers. The research alone may take seven years, with commercial operation possible in 2030, according to ThyssenKrupp’s Achatz. The eventual cost may reach 1 billion euros, he said.

Emissions Trading

If it works, ThyssenKrupp and its partners could gain an upper hand in the EU emissions market, where more than 12,000 companies must accelerate their pollution cuts in the next decade. The benefit would come from a cap-and-trade program that rewards companies that cut emissions faster than their peers by giving them a larger number of free permits that can be sold to other participants.

HeidelbergCement, which markets building materials in Europe, North America, Asia, Australia and Africa, has had a head start on the field.

The company already uses a type of slag generated in its blast furnaces as an ingredient in concrete, cutting CO2 emissions by around 900 kilograms for every metric ton compared with traditional cement. The company’s goal is to trim average CO2 emissions per ton of cement by 23 percent, compared with 1990, by the end of this year.

Covestro, the plastics unit that Bayer AG plans to list, is intending to derive some of its raw materials from CO2 starting next year. A new chemical process will turn CO2 into a building block for polyurethanes, reducing Covestro’s consumption of oil, which is the current material used.

While these efforts are slowly starting to take shape, the push for increased government limits on greenhouse gas pollutants is racing ahead.

“The energy-intensive industry can make an important contribution to achieve the climate protection targets,” said Nina Scheer, a lawmaker in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition. She said companies such as Volkswagen AG that don’t take seriously the duty to reduce emissions “harm their own market opportunities.”

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