Dr. Günter Hilken: Chemistry in NRW – From coal chemistry to the key for the energy turnaround

The industrial sector chemistry plays a central role at the Rhine
and Ruhr rivers. The industry has to overcome a twofold challenge:
it is energy-intensive itself and wants to contribute to the success
of the energy turnaround with key technologies.

The chemical industry in NRW is a supporting pillar of the German chemistry and is the most important chemistry region in Europe. Approximately 30 per cent of the German chemistry sector is concentrated in NRW. Today that means almost 100,000 employees who generate a chem­istry turnover of about 50 billion euros annually. Further­more, much is being done in NRW for the next generation of professionals. Every year there are approximately 2,800 new apprentices and there are currently chemis­try study programmes available at 17 universities. More­over, there is no federal state that has more chemical parks than North Rhine-Westphalia. Already ten of these chemical parks have been developed and represent integrated sites with special interaction and networking among the companies that are located there. But how did our industry develop into what it is today?

The origin of chemistry in North Rhine-Westphalia had different reasons, but coal was a crucial factor in its early development. Chemical industry settled in the Ruhr re­­gion because there was a variety of coal mines and a distinctive downstream coal industry. Therefore it is no wonder that many productions and processes where directly or indirectly tied to coal. One process that is still well-known today, which stems from this time and our region, was the Fischer-Tropsch process, developed for extracting liquid hydrocarbon. This is a technology which is also very important today for producing bio fuels on the basis of renewable raw materials. In the 1940s and 1950s, Roelen’s oxo synthesis and Ziegler’s polyethene synthesis led to new and productive areas of op­­eration in the chemical industry.

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Over the course of time, crude oil and natural gas took coal’s place as the prime chemical raw material. On the one hand, this is because of their chemical composition – coal has a lower hydrogen content than crude oil and is therefore less available for chemical conversion – and on the other hand due to the high extraction costs for coal. It has become increasingly clear that a high degree of science and research, a large quantity of buyers and downstream users in the vicinity and a purposeful management are more important than proximity to raw materials. A good education and highly qualified staff are an essential success criterion for chemistry in NRW.

Nowadays, the chemical industry is one that is closely intertwined with many industries and value-added chains, which by far are not only dependent on one raw material. North Rhine-Westphalia, as the top industrial location in Germany, features an unparalleled variety of industries and value-added chains. Despite economical interrelations becoming more and more global and borders fre­­quently only existing on maps, it has nonetheless become apparent that spatial proximity in industrial value-added chains should not be underrated. Without long transpor­tation and logistic routes, input materials can be utilised quickly and the distances for face-to-face meetings are also much shorter. This is an fundamental advantage that NRW has compared to many other locations. In the past few years, the terms networks and clusters have become increasingly popular. These are often affiliations of part­ners who want to expand exactly this location advantage through increased networking.

The next unique feature in NRW is the high number of chemical and industry parks. These represent all already named advantages of the networking site NRW on a small scale, as in a microcosm. Locations developed, usually fol­­lowing former plants of smaller chemical companies, and today a variety of companies that are closely intertwined with each other in a small space benefit from the re­spective products of other chemical park partners. Material flows and processes are used with particular efficiency.

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Paying attention to the role and meaning of the described structures, we usually speak of the chemical industry as an enabler industry – an industry that faces mega trends and helps solve problems. One of the biggest challenges of our time is certainly the energy turnaround. Within the framework of its chemical parks, the chemical location NRW also contributes its share to mastering this challenge.

For one, this happens through the materials that are being developed and produced, such as products for renewable energy plants, insulation materials or materials for saving fuel. These products and their usage have a worldwide effect, because the products are used glo­b­ally. Also, power plants that are operated by combined heat and power (CHP) contribute to the energy turnaround. These plants are especially efficient, because they not only produce energy, but also steam that is needed for the production processes. New CHP plants, which are in the planning stage, are flexibly operated and also produce energy when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

With a view of the historical origins, the development of the location and today’s challenges, there are several important demands on the chemical industry in NRW: we still need excellent research and development. Only then is it possible for chemical companies to introduce a variety of products on the market and promote sustainable development in state-of-the-art plants. However, in addition to all innovational strength, this must be done at competitive prices. Companies, politics and society must all contribute. The companies want to and must continue to invest in the location and therefore contribute their share to competitiveness.

Especially in the context of the energy turnabout, politics must contribute to providing companies with a framework that will make their products internationally competitive in the future. But we also need acceptance of what we do. We need to make it clear to the people that a strong industry, in which chemistry, as the third-largest sector, belongs to the core, is fundamental for this country. Making compromises will remain a part of this for some of the residents of these areas, in order to ensure that our industry will remain the chemical heart of Europe in the future and also to ensure that the inhabitants of NRW can maintain their customary living standard.

131055_1682_Hilken-KopieDr. Günter Hilken
The chemist was born in 1954 and joined the Rubber Business Group at Bayer AG in Dormagen in 1984. This was followed by executive positions in Sarnia (CAN) and Akron (USA). In 2007, Dr. Hilken was appointed to the executive board of Bayer MaterialScience. Since 2011, he has been chairman of the executive board of Currenta GmbH & Co. OHG and since 2014, he is chairman of the Verband der Chemischen Industrie association in North Rhine-Westphalia.