Generating energy from renewable resources can be sustainable – as long as certain criteria are met.
Take Jühnde in southern Lower Saxony, Germany. At first glance, it is a perfectly normal village, with around 1,000 inhabitants, a sports field and tennis courts, a kindergarten and a toddler group. What makes the tiny municipality special is that in 2005, Jühnde became Germany’s first bio-energy village, generating its own heat and electricity from renewable resources. The systems have since been sold to an operator, but Jühnde remains a success story that has inspired more than 30 German villages to follow in its wake over the years.
Timber, crops, algae, other plants, excrement and waste from agriculture and forestry provide the fuel for biomass or biogas systems. There are numerous benefits to producing energy from biomass. Chief among them is the fact that a plant consumes as much CO2 while growing as it releases when burned. Generating energy in this way is therefore essentially carbon-neutral. Furthermore, the fuel is usually suitable for storage and can rapidly be burned and converted into energy whenever necessary.
However, there are a few prerequisites that need to be fulfilled before biomass can be made into a truly sustainable energy source. The origin and method of generation of the requisite biomass are pivotal. The emissions produced during combustion are not the only ones that need to be taken into account, as transporting the biomass is a source of emissions as well. There is also the fact that the space available for cultivating crops for fuel is not unlimited, and they may sometimes be competing with food crops. Then there is the more critical problem that precious habitats will sometimes end up falling victim to sterile and susceptible monocultures.
To sum up, only if biomass is produced in the right way can it make a lasting contribution to the sustainable supply of energy and resources. It presents a good opportunity to make use of waste materials, especially when alternative means of using them are limited or non-existent.
LANXESS is demonstrating exactly how this can work at its site in Porto Feliz in Brazil. A state-of-the-art cogeneration plant was set up there in 2008. This power plant has an exceptional efficiency of up to 90% and generates energy and steam simultaneously. At first, the power plant was operated using bagasse, a residue left over from the processing of sugar cane, but it now uses various types of biomass derived from plantation waste. Because these feedstocks are renewable, the energy generation process is carbon-neutral. That makes it a perfect fit for the LANXESS Climate Neutral 2040 strategy.
Why nitrous oxide is so harmful to the climate and what role it plays in the climate strategy at LANXESS.
For most people, a visit to the dentist is not a particularly pleasant experience, and often a painful one. In many cases, relief comes in the form of sedation with nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, which has been used to great effect in dentistry for decades. Nitrous oxide is non-toxic, has calming and analgesic effects and does not take long to leave the body. It is the ideal method of ensuring painless dental treatment, which is one reason that the gas enjoys an excellent reputation among many people.
When it comes to the climate, however, nitrous oxide is no laughing matter. Nitrous oxide (N2O) is around 300 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide and accounts for between six and nine percent of the global greenhouse effect. In addition, scientists recently established in the course of a study that global N2O emissions had risen markedly since 2009, much more quickly than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had forecast. Whereas emissions amounted to 16.3 million metric tons in the years from 2000 to 2005, they had increased to 17.9 million metric tons every year by the period from 2010 to 2015.
Nitrous oxide is released primarily from natural sources such as bacterial processes in the nitrogen cycle in various ecosystems. Humans and their activities have played a big part in the upturn in emissions, particularly in agriculture. The use of fertilizers is one of the major culprits behind nitrous oxide emissions. The chemical industry is another source of nitrous oxide, as it is produced in processes such as adipic acid synthesis. Adipic acid is a precursor very much in demand in the plastics industry. However, manufacturing the acid produces N2O, a greenhouse gas harmful to the environment – and LANXESS is one of those manufacturers.
Even before the turn of the millennium, LANXESS had begun to work on reducing its emissions of greenhouse gases, and the first facility for breaking down nitrous oxide became operational at the Uerdingen site in Krefeld in the 1990s. A second facility was officially opened in 2009. Depending on capacity, the thermal process that LANXESS uses destroys five to ten million metric tons of CO2 equivalent at high temperatures every year. That means less nitrous oxide and a much better carbon footprint!
Nitrous oxide also has a key role to play in the Climate Neutral 2040 initiative aimed at a carbon-neutral future for LANXESS. A facility for breaking down nitrous oxide is currently being built at the Antwerp site. Once it is complete, the new facility will cut annual emissions of the greenhouse gas by around 150,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent – so maybe the story of laughing gas and the climate will have a happy ending after all.