Their objective is to find ways to use new and existing technologies to reduce the carbon footprint throughout a product’s lifecycle from its raw materials stage to manufacture, application and use through to recycling or disposal.
This can provide options to customers like switching to waterborne or high solids coatings. Or they can provide coatings materials with a low level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), possibly achieved through the development of biomaterials with a quality and performance equal or perhaps even surpassing those derived from petrochemicals.
Another alternative route is the development of CO2 into coatings raw materials. Instead of being emitted into atmosphere CO2 becomes part of a closed loop as a raw material for a product which at the end of its life cycle is broken down and reused as a material in another product.
But the more technologically advanced the option the bigger the obstacles which may stem from basic science and physics but can also be a matter of economics and government policies.
Being Europe’s largest coatings market, Germany is one of the region’s leading producers of coatings and their raw materials. With the help of R&D funds from its federal government it is also a leader in the development and commercialization of low carbon coatings technologies. As a result it is fully aware of the technological difficulties.
As one of the biggest producers in both Germany and Europe of both coatings and their raw materials, BASF is also among the most active in the development of chemistry which is helping to produce new materials with low carbon footprints, including materials based on CO2.
BASF has a strategy of cutting CO2 emissions through greater energy efficiencies in its own production processes through the use of low-carbon raw materials, such as biochemicals. This in turn helps reduce carbon footprint through the coatings and other supply chains by helping customers meet their own sustainability targets.
“For ourselves and our customers improving the sustainability balance is the biggest innovation driver,” Martin Brudermueller, BASF chairman and chief technology officer, told the company’s annual R&D press conference at Ludwigshafen, Germany, in January.
In addition to striving to find ways of reducing CO2 emissions, the company is at the forefront of efforts to develop technologies for converting CO2 into a feedstock or raw material, ultimately for coatings and other products.
Already BASF has reduced its greenhouse emissions by 50 percent since 1990 while doubling its output volumes. “Achieving another significant reduction in CO2 emissions will require entirely new technologies,” Brudermueller said. But developing CO2 into raw materials was also a massive technological challenge.
The company has introduced energy saving innovations downstream such as a paint system for automobiles which controls the temperature of the coating through management of UV rays.
“A UV-reflecting primer reduces the temperature on the vehicle by up to 20C,” explained Joerg Zumkley, global communications manager at BASF Coatings. “This results in less heat in the interior so that through energy saving with the air conditioner fuel consumption is reduced.”
However, some of BASF’s biggest initiatives on climate change have been upstream in the supply chain. It is now using bio-naphtha or biogas derived from organic waste or vegetable oils as a feedstock for ethylene crackers. Through a certification system, this enables downstream customers, such as manufacturers of coatings and other raw materials, to claim that their products are at least partially bio-based.
The most technologically ambitious technologies currently being developed by BASF is the conversion of CO2 into upstream feedstocks which is helping to add to the sustainability balance of coatings and other supply chains. It is able to make these advances because it is a chemicals conglomerate backward integrated into the production of ethylene and propylene and other basic chemicals, as well as a specialist in catalysis.
Through the development of new catalyst systems it has created a technology for the dry reforming of methane for the production of syngas with a low CO2 footprint. The syngas can then be converted through catalysis into dimethyl ether (DME) for production of olefins.
Nils Bottke, head of BASF’s chemicals catalyst research, told the R&D conference, that the process which has yet to reach the commercialisation stage would improve process efficiency by 10-15 percent and reduce the CO2 footprint by 50-70 percent.
BASF has also been involved in joint R&D projects with other German chemical companies on low-carbon coatings technologies, usually with the help of funds from the German government.
One of these has been the development of a bio-based hardener with Covestro, a specialist in polyurethane coatings materials which has been adopting a similar strategy of using biochemicals to reduce carbon footprints while also developing CO2-based raw materials through university R&D partnerships.
The two companies, with the car manufacturer Audi, have combined to introduce an automobile clearcoat with a biobased hardener.
Covestro has since introduced its own variants of the technology to launch biobased hardeners for furniture coatings.
However the company’s major technological advances have been with CO2 based materials, particularly with bio-derived polyols for polyurethane coatings materials.
“CO2 is gaining in importance as an alternative carbon source (since) CO2 is virtually infinite and globally available,” explained Daniel Koch, head of Covestro’s site network in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia, where it is developing CO2 material technologies. “However using CO2 is technically very challenging,” he warned.
This was a view echoed by Brudermueller at the BASF R&D conference who pointed out the limits of decarbonisation and relying on CO2 as a raw material.
“Chemistry is based on carbon and cannot be decarbonized,” he said. “Using CO2 as a substitute raw material is only an option in a limited number of cases. Carbon dioxide is a very stable molecule so that using it as a chemical raw material requires a very energy intensive process.”
But he did pointed out that the costs of energy-intensive CO2 conversion processes could be offset by the potential for ‘negative pricing’ of carbon dioxide under the European Union’s trading system for carbon emission allowances when CO2 is used as a raw material. This could make CO2 as a raw material source a much more attractive proposition.