Sustainability as compass
For Covestro, thinking and acting sustainably is a key driver of innovation. By developing pioneering technologies and products, the company makes an important contribution to improving the livelihood and quality of life for millions of people worldwide.
Covestro aims to become climate-neutral by 2035 – the first company in the chemical industry to do so. The first steps have already been taken, and more are to follow. In the future, the materials manufacturer wants to offer every product in a climate-neutral version. In this way, absolute greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced by 60 percent by 2030.
Covestro has been combining economic, ecological and social aspects since its foundation. For many years, the company has been committed to the principle of "People, Planet, Profit". Covestro is also guided by the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. They are an integral part of the corporate strategy.
Employees exemplify the concept of sustainability
Sustainability also plays a central role for Covestro in Germany. Many suggestions for new climate-friendly and resource-conserving technologies and products are the result of employees’ inventiveness. Innovative solutions come from very different corners of the company.
For example, as part of employee initiatives such as the “Energy Efficiency Professional”. In this competition, employees who work for Covestro at one of the seven German sites can submit their concepts for increasing energy efficiency. The best ideas not only receive an award, but are also tested for their feasibility.
Forward-looking projects in Germany
However, employee initiatives such as the “Energy Efficiency Professional” are just one example of Covestro’s high level of commitment to sustainability. The company implements many projects in Germany – both on its own or in close cooperation with external partners.
Covestro is fully aligned to the circular economy and wants to help make it the global guiding principle in business and society. To this end, the company also heavily relies on cooperations – throughout the entire value chain and, in particular, in the interaction between different sectors. The aim of the Circular Economy is to use products as long as possible and several times as well as to avoid waste and to use end-of-life products such as used plastics as a valuable resource. Covestro is developing innovative recycling technologies for this purpose.
In addition, the company aims to use alternative raw materials such as biomass and CO₂ in its production, thereby reducing dependence on fossil resources such as oil as much as possible. With its detailed Circular Economy program, which also includes the use of renewable energies, the materials manufacturer wants to help protect the climate, conserve limited natural resources, and set an example for the entire plastics industry.
Alternative raw materials
Covestro has been advancing the use of alternative raw materials ever since its inception. In doing so, the company is breaking completely new ground – both in terms of product development as well as process optimization. Thanks to alternative raw materials, petroleum consumption at the sites can be significantly reduced. This not only benefits the climate, but also the environment. This is one of the reasons why Covestro intends to further accelerate the use of alternative raw materials and launch new processes on the market.
Up to now, plastics have mostly been produced on the basis of fossil raw materials such as crude oil. Howver, a number of alternatives have emerged over time. Covestro and RWTH Aachen University have developed an innovative process that can replace part of the crude oil in production with CO₂ (carbon dioxide) – for example in the manufacture of foams for mattresses and upholstered furniture. Covestro has already been using the process successfully at its site in Dormagen. This is bringing the company closer to its declared goal of establishing a chemical industry that is independent of crude oil. At the same time, the materials manufacturer is working with partners to explore what other applications can be developed with this novel technology. The focus here is on elastomers, fibers, and insulation boards, among other things.
Covestro is also looking into how CO₂ can be used as a raw material as part of its numerous research projects. As part of “Carbon2Chem”, Covestro, under the leadership of Thyssenkrupp, is part of a cross-sector consortium of companies exploring, for example, how so-called metallurgical gases produced in steel production can be used as alternative carbon-based raw materials. In this context, the use of carbon monoxide (CO), which is contained in the gases, is of major importance. The consortium has already proven the feasibility and is now aiming for large-scale deployment.
In addition, Covestro is working with 13 partners as part of the Europe-wide "Carbon4PUR" research project to use volatile gases generated during steel production for the production of polyurethane. The project is funded under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. The first promising results showed how precursors for plastics could be obtained from CO.
This way, the chemical and steel industries can take joint action in the fight against climate change in the future.
Excellent market opportunities are anticipated for bio-based raw materials. They make production even more sustainable. Covestro is one of the pioneers in the chemical industry in their use. Among other things, the company has succeeded in producing aniline from biomass at its site in Leverkusen.
Aniline has numerous functions in production. The chemical is used, for example, as a basis for the production of medicines, dyes and plastics. Covestro requires aniline primarily for the production of methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI), a main component of foam insulation. Until now, aniline has been obtained from benzene, which in turn comes from crude oil.
However, Covestro has managed to achieve an important breakthrough. In the synthesis of aniline, the company has for the first time developed a process in which corn or straw, for example, can be used to produce the chemical. Thus, bio-based aniline can be made of one hundred percent renewable carbon. This represents an opportunity to significantly reduce the use of fossil raw materials in the company's own plants in the future.
Covestro has received ISCC Plus certification for its sites in Leverkusen, Dormagen, Krefeld-Uerdingen (ISCC: International Sustainability and Carbon Certification). The mass balance approach relies on the use of certified recycled and biobased raw materials from the start of production and thus promotes the development of a circular economy. It enables fossil raw materials to be saved along the entire value chain and greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced.
Various mass-balanced products are manufactured at the three NRW sites. These include selected polycarbonates, components for polyurethane (PU) rigid and flexible foams, PU coating and adhesive raw materials, thermoplastic polyurethanes (TPUs) and specialty films. They are characterized by equally good quality and properties as products made from fossil raw materials. With ISCC Plus certification, Covestro is driving the circular economy further forward. By 2035, Covestro aims to become climate neutral and achieve net zero emissions for Scope 1 and Scope 2.
Sustainable coatings are expected to further reduce the CO₂ footprint of cars in the future. This is the goal of a project team in which employees from Covestro, BASF, and Audi are working together. They teamed up to coat test bodies of an Audi Q2 with a clearcoat containing a partially bio-based hardener – under near-production conditions.
Around 70 percent of the plastic content of the hardener comes from biomass. This makes it possible to significantly reduce the use of raw materials in production processes. The initial test results have shown that the vehicle coating meets the specific requirements of the car manufacturer even with the innovative clearcoat. While not all tests have been completed to the point of series production release, the project partners feel the result is an important step on the road to even more sustainable automotive coatings.
Plastic products are thrown away way too often at the end of their life. This needs to change. They should be viewed as a valuable resource. The guiding principle should be to use products as long as possible. Covestro promotes innovative recycling technologies to keep plastic waste inside the value cycle. The company has set up more than 20 research and development projects. At the same time, Covestro is pushing the boundaries of what is possible to conserve valuable resources such as water. A particular focus is on the recycling of industrial wastewater.
Mattresses contain 15 to 20 kilograms of foam on average. As trailblazer for industrial recycling, Covestro is trying to figure out new ways how to reuse the valuable resources at the end of their product life. That is why the company has recently started operating a pilot plant for the chemical recycling of flexible polyurethane (PU) foam from used mattresses in Leverkusen.
For the first time, the two main PU-components polyol and an isocyanate precursor can be recycled. The process builds on the company’s involvement in the "PUReSmart" research project. The aim of the pilot plant is to verify the positive laboratory results achieved to date. By using the innovative process, Covestro can close material loops, replace fossil resources in production, and offer new solutions for dealing with plastic waste. At the same time, the company succeed in proving that polyurethanes are recyclable.
As part of the "PUReSmart" research project, Covestro also worked with the two companies Recticel and Redwave to develop an intelligent sorting solution to efficiently separate the different PU foams from post-consumer mattresses. The software uses machine-learning algorithms for a proper recognition of the different types of foam, enabling clean material inputs for the subsequent recycling process. This is an important step in advancing the circular economy.
In Krefeld-Uerdingen wastewater from the production of polycarbonate is now being recycled directly in an industrial pilot plant for the first time in Germany. By doing so, Covestro not only conserves valuable resources, but also protects the environment at the same time. The recycled wastewater is used to produce chlorine in the electrolysis process. Chlorine, in turn, is an important raw material for the production of polycarbonate – a high-performance plastic that is widely used in the automotive and electrical industries, among others.
Thanks to the salt water treatment plant, Covestro can save up to 15,000 metric tons of salt and 200,000 metric tons of so-called fully desalinated water at the site each year. This corresponds to a net total of around 800 metric tons of CO₂ equivalents. The project underlines the company’s aspiration to be a defining force in the Circular Economy. In addition, the company continues to transfer the technology to other Covestro sites. Various research projects are currently investigating which processes are suitable for the utilization of saline industrial wastewater and how the recycling volume can be increased in the future.
The construction industry is the second largest plastics application sector in Germany. The “KUBA” pilot project, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, is therefore investigating how the industrial sector can increasingly use plastics in cycles in the future – also with the aim of recovering raw materials for new products.
Admittedly, a number of collection and recycling systems already exist. However, common processes such as the mechanical recycling of plastic waste currently often encounter technical and economic limits. That’s why feedstock recycling could be a solution. In this process, plastic waste is broken down into basic chemical substances and then reused as a raw material.
“KUBA” has been coordinated by DECHEMA Gesellschaft für Chemische Technik und Biotechnologie e. V. since December 2018. Covestro is one of eleven industrial companies that are partners in the pilot project.
Energy efficiency and power supply
The chemical industry is one of the most energy-intensive sectors in the world. This will not change in the future. Covestro – like other manufacturing companies – depends on a steady supply of electricity at competitive prices. At the same time, the company takes its responsibility very seriously and works around the clock to further minimize the energy consumption of its sites, also in Germany. In doing so, the company is helping to ensure that production in Germany is more climate and environmentally friendly.
It is impossible to imagine the chemical industry without chlorine. Around two-thirds of all products are based on this important raw material – for example polymers, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals for drinking water treatment. Chlorine production is one of the most energy-intensive processes of all and therefore a real cost factor.
However, Covestro has now pushed the boundaries of what is possible in this area yet again. Together with partners from industry, the company has developed a technology that can reduce the amount of energy required for chlorine production by 25 percent. The innovative oxygen depolarized cathode (ODC) is already in use in Germany at the Krefeld-Uerdingen site at partial capacity.
The new process is fundamentally based on the common membrane process of chloralkali electrolysis, in which chlorine, caustic soda, and hydrogen are extracted from table salt (NaCl) and water. However, there is one subtle but crucial difference: the hydrogen-generating electrode that is usually used is replaced by an oxygen depolarized cathode. The supply of oxygen to the cathode subsequently prevents the formation of hydrogen. This way, only chlorine and caustic soda can be obtained.
The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung – BMBF) funded the project as part of the “Research for Sustainability” (FONA) initiative. The technology was awarded the 2019 Covestro Science Medal for outstanding innovative and sustainable performance.
The result is impressive: If the ODC technology were to be used throughout Germany for chlorine production, Germany could reduce its total electricity requirements by around one percent. That would be roughly equivalent to the annual consumption of a major city such as Cologne.
Covestro is one of the world’s leading producers of methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI). The raw material is used, among other things, for the production of energy-efficient insulation solutions for buildings and refrigeration equipment. According to forecasts, the global market for MDI is expected to undergo further growth. Thanks to adiabatic isothermal phosgenation (AdiP) technology, Covestro is well prepared for the expected increase in demand.
The company has spent around 20 years refining the innovative AdiP technology. The result is impressive: Production output has increased by 50 percent compared to the technology currently in use. At the same time, the technology stands out for its high environmental friendliness. It enables a significant reduction in energy requirements and CO₂ emissions. The key is an optimized reaction design that allows Covestro to dispense with external energy input. This is also where the name of the technology comes from. This is because the reaction is adiabatic-isothermal.
The savings potential in an MDI plant with AdiP technology is enormous. It amounts to up to 40 percent less steam and up to 25 percent less electricity per ton of MDI produced. This corresponds to a reduction in energy-related CO₂ emissions of around 35 percent. The technology is thus making an important contribution to Covestro’s sustainability goals.
So far, AdiP has only been used in a pilot project at the Brunsbüttel site. However, once successfully completed, it will be available for implementation in the next world-scale plant.
Covestro aims for climate neutrality by 2035. The long-term goal is to rely on 100% renewable energy sources. To this end, the company has already made some landmark decisions.
In 2019, Covestro signed the world's largest industrial corporate supply agreement (Corporate Power Purchase Agreement, PPA) for electricity from offshore wind turbines to date with Ørsted. Starting in 2025, the Danish energy supplier will provide green electricity from the newly created offshore wind farm off the island of Borkum for ten years. The agreement covers 100 megawatts of capacity and thus covers a significant amount of Covestro Germany's electricity needs.
In addition, Covestro will also be focusing on using solar power in the future. The materials manufacturer agreed on long-term PPA with the German energy company EnBW. Starting in 2022, Covestro will purchase 63 megawatts of power from EnBW's "Weesow-Willmersdorf" solar park in Brandenburg. The contract is initially set to run for 15 years. Covestro plans to use the solar power at its Dormagen and Krefeld-Uerdingen sites primarily for the production of sustainable, mass-balanced plastics manufactured using the drop-in process. The agreement with Covestro is the project's first PPA.
By switching to renewable energies, Covestro is not only a step closer to meeting its own climate targets. Wind and solar power increase the sustainability of Covestro's own production processes and at the same time help customers to reduce their own carbon footprint.
Germany is committed to further consistently increasing the share of renewable energies. But what happens when more green power is generated on windy summer days than is needed at the time? Given that there are hardly any ways to store the surplus electricity so far, new approaches have to be pursued.
One example of this is the German government’s Kopernikus projects, in which partners from business, science, and society work closely together. Covestro is also involved. As part of the project “Kopernikus P2X”, for example, the company is researching so-called power-to-X technologies (P2X), which can be used to convert electricity from renewable sources into other material resources.
These resources must then be efficiently stored, distributed, and converted into the different end products required in several complex steps. This requires innovative solutions that are to be developed within the project into ecologically, economically and socially beneficial processes. The project team is currently investigating a way to use renewable energy and CO₂ to create precursors that can be used to produce synthesis gas. This would reduce the use of fossil raw materials in production in the future.
Synthesis gas is a mixture of gases that is used, among other things, for the production of chemicals. The gas can be used directly or as a building block for higher-value raw materials such as fuels. The right composition is important here, as the respective proportion of the various components varies depending on the desired product.
In the pursuit of hydrogen technology, Covestro is working on solutions for utilizing chemical feedstocks accessible via P2X technology as building blocks for precursors of plastics (power-to-chemicals). Normally, these consist entirely of petroleum. The project team, on the other hand, uses CO₂ as a carbon source and combines it with the regeneratively produced green hydrogen.
In this way, intermediate chemical steps can be used to produce polyols, a precursor for polyurethane materials. This enables successful coupling between dynamically supplied, regenerative electrical energy and material utilization. Now the process is to be further developed into an industrially useful, continuous process, and the polyols themselves are to be comprehensively investigated in terms of their applicability.
The chemical industry is the second largest consumer of electricity in Germany. As a result, the industry has great “demand response capacity” – both in a positive as well as in a negative sense. So how can fluctuations in supply and consumption in the chemical industry be more evenly balanced in the future? Researchers have now addressed precisely this question. Using the energy-intensive production of chlorine as an example, they are investigating how electricity consumption in the industry can be made to be more flexible.
Within the interdisciplinary joint project “SynErgie”, Covestro is working with partners to analyze the load management and flexibility potential of current and future electrochemical processes in the chemical industry and then evaluate them from an economic perspective. Up to now, production has been driven mainly at a constant rate. However, the research project aims to find out how a mode of operation that is adapted to a fluctuating electricity supply can be technically feasible and economically viable.