Status: 08.12.2023, 22:33 p.m.
By: Amy Walker
Germany as a business location has been criticised. Some even fear deindustrialization. But the world's largest lime producer wants to stay here – and is investing.
Brussels/Wülfrath – German industry is currently plagued by many problems. Some companies are even threatening to leave because of it. Germany is an unattractive location – too expensive, too bureaucratic. But there are also positive developments. There are also investments taking place that testify to the opposite.
This is also the case in Wülfrath, in North Rhine-Westphalia. The world's largest producer of lime and its products, the Lhoist Group, operates Europe's largest lime plant there. It is energy-intensive and currently very harmful to the climate – Lhoist currently produces more CO₂ than lime. A good candidate for emigration abroad, you might think. But that's exactly where billions are being invested right now to keep the entire industry sustainably in Germany and Europe. For this, Lhoist Germany even received the German Sustainability Award in September.
Lhoist: 1.8 million tons of CO₂ are emitted annually in Wülfrath
One of the people responsible for these developments at Lhoist is Andreas Bode. He is the Vice President for CO₂ and Process Innovation in Belgium, so the engineer has a great deal of responsibility. He oversees the various projects aimed at decarbonising the lime industry. One of them, in the tranquil town of Wülfrath, has just received the green light from the EU for subsidies in the three-digit millions. Another, which is running in France in cooperation with Air Liquide, is currently in the phase of "billion-dollar desk work", as Andreas Bode himself puts it. This project is also funded by the EU.
The lime industry, together with the cement industry, is responsible for as much as 25% of industrial emissions in the EU. This amounted to a total of 2022 million tonnes of CO₂ in 27. In Wülfrath alone, 1.8 million tons are emitted. The only problem is that most of the emissions - two-thirds of them - produced in the lime industry are not caused by energy consumption, but are part of the process of obtaining the desired product. In other words, emissions are unavoidable.
During lime production, CO₂ is produced as an unavoidable emission © Screenshot/Lhoist
Now, you might think that the solution is to replace lime gradually. Just as we replace coal, we could also find a lime alternative, right? Unfortunately, it's not that simple. This becomes clear when you consider where lime is used everywhere and for what purpose.
Lime acts as a kind of "cleaner" in many industries. So it is used in the steel industry, or in the glass industry. In order for a glass to become clear and not cloudy, limescale must be used. It is also used in drinking water treatment. The fabric works quite differently in the paper industry, where lime ensures that the paper on which we want to write later is easy to write on, tear-resistant and white. Lime has also been used as a building material for a long time, as a kind of plaster on the walls. New technologies also rely on lime, for example for the production of battery materials and electromobility.
So lime is somehow everywhere, is difficult to replace and a real climate killer on top of that. However, Andreas Bode and his colleague Martin Volmer want to start at the latter point. You have to make the impossible possible. It is not for nothing that the decarbonisation project in Wülfrath has been given the name "Everest".
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Fancy a voyage of discovery?
Lhoist needs to switch from coal to natural gas – and then to biomass
"As a first step, of course, we went to the emissions that we can replace. In other words, primarily the energy we need for our incinerators." Lhoist is in the process of switching from coal to natural gas. "Of course, natural gas is now also a problem in many places," as Bode puts it, which is why they have already searched further and have now come up with biomass. Namely biomass, for which little else can be found. "Olive and grape seeds, for example. The kernels don't compost quickly, so the regional farms are also happy to get rid of them."
This form of biomass, which can be obtained from different locations in the vicinity of the industrial plant, could be called regional energy. According to Bode, Lhoist is currently investing "a lot of money" in converting the furnaces to this biomass. Whether this is sufficient as the sole energy source for a lime plant is still being discussed. But he thinks it can be enough. "We are not yet 100 percent sure that it will be enough everywhere. However, it is not a problem for the smaller plants in regions with agriculture." But the hope is that in the long term it will also be possible to switch to renewable electricity, although the electric heating of lime kilns is still being researched.
The lime producer Lhoist is a heavyweight in the industry - and very difficult to decarbonise. © IMAGO
CO₂ storage and use is inevitable for Lhoist
This means that Andreas Bode has taken a third of the emissions off the table - at least in theory. But the big chunk is yet to come. "We need to talk about CO₂ storage and use. You can't do anything else. I don't know of any possibility." In other words, the CO₂ is not blown into the air during production, as was previously the case, but separated and then either used or stored underground.
CO₂ can be used, for example, by storing it in mineralized form, for example in concrete. The only problem with this is that it is not possible to produce as much concrete as would theoretically have to be produced to absorb all the emissions with today's processes. "You can think about it for a long time, that's a nice thing and also right for some of the emissions, but not feasible for all emissions from lime production," says Bode.
Another possible use for the captured CO₂ would be as a fuel in heavy-duty transport. But that doesn't really help anyone, after all, the CO₂ would then be released again. Basically, all that remains is CO₂ storage. This is also what Lhoist wants to do now, what the billions are to be spent on – also in Germany.
Budget crisis also unsettles Lhoist in Wülfrath
The project in Wülfrath is overseen by Martin Volmer, Senior Manager CO₂ Transformation for Lhoist Germany. The funding from the EU is currently "reserved" for the project, as he explains, and they are currently working on an agreement that could be signed as early as December. After that, the planning can become more concrete, and Lhoist then wants to make the investment decision in 2025.
In Wülfrath, two approaches to CO₂ avoidance are to be pursued: On the one hand, Lhoist wants to build a CO₂ capture plant on existing furnaces. On the other hand, we can also build completely new types of furnaces that can separate the CO₂ with less energy input. "We are the first to want to build this on this scale. We are also taking great risks in doing so," explains Volmer. If everything goes as planned, the first low-CO₂ lime is expected to roll off the production line in 2029. From 2032, they want to operate almost completely decarbonized in Wülfrath.
In total, well over half a billion euros are to be invested in Wülfrath alone. 200 million euros will be invested in the project in France. In order to take the money in hand and take the risks, Lhoist is also dependent on a reliable policy – which has just fizzled out in Berlin due to the budget ruling.
"I'm worried about what this means for us," says Martin Volmer. You don't need direct subsidies, that's not the problem. Rather, it is a matter of having a kind of insurance in the background, for example through the so-called climate protection contracts that should be concluded between the Federal Republic of Germany and industrial companies. Whether these will still come is currently being discussed intensively in Berlin. If there are problems in the course of this transformation – which everyone wants and needs – then there must be a fair distribution of risk between the companies and the Ministry of Economic Affairs, according to Volmer.