[Column] Why study chemistry?

Students of chemical technology are often criticised for their choice of study. This is not right, says Monique van der Veen, as it is a good option.

Monique van der Veen: “If you are concerned about polarisation at all, then assuming that ‘I am the problem’ is a very good option.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

“Who are you to study chemical technology?” Students in our degree programme sometimes hear this kind of question from other TU Delft students. You know, because of things like climate change and the ‘plastic soup’. Our first year programme includes an assignment in which we visit a petrochemical company in the Botlek. There, our students ask this kind of question to the employees of the company. “Why do you work for Shell/Exxon Mobil/Dow?”

From conversations with students at other faculties, I get the impression that the idea that all the solutions needed for the energy transition are alive and kicking. That it is only a question of large-scale implementation, and that the only things stopping it are policy and an unwillingness to make the funds needed available. And this being the case, why would you study chemical technology, a study that has been long associated with the petrochemical industry?

But the assumption that we already have all the solutions we need for the energy transition is wrong. And certainly not in the chemistry field.

We have 12 years in which to drastically reduce the amount of iridium that we need

Shell recently started construction of a 200 megawatt electrolyser to produce renewable hydrogen in the harbour of Rotterdam. However, an electrolyser like this uses iridium as a catalyser. This is one of the rarest elements on earth and this fact painfully points to the current status of the technology. We have 12 years in which to drastically reduce (by 85%) the amount of iridium that we need and to create an effective infrastructure that will recover at least 90% of the iridium in circulation – such as from LED screens and electronics – for reuse. Or to come up with a scientific breakthrough that would naturally make iridium redundant. Otherwise we will have a problem with the large-scale deployment of electrolysers.

The Haber-Bosch process that produces ammonia for artificial fertiliser accounts for almost half the chemical industry’s CO2 emissions (1.2% of global CO2 emissions every year). The process is done at 500 degrees Celsius and 200 bar. This takes a lot of energy and is a huge process given that without it, we would only be able to feed half of the world’s population. A lot of research is currently underway to use sustainably generated electricity at room temperature. But a system that can do this sufficiently has not yet been invented.

The Netherlands too wants a fully circular economy by 2050. This means that there will be no waste streams anymore, products will not have an ‘end-of-life’ anymore, and that everything will be reused in some way. This means that we need to reuse all the materials and molecules from residual streams. This would then involve elements that are scarce, such as the aforementioned iridium, but would also involve extracting as many useful products as possible from things like orange peels, agricultural residual streams … As long as you add enough energy, and there are no limits as to how complicated your process may be, almost everything is achievable. But sustainable energy will definitely not be an unlimited souce of energy for a quite along time. Quite the opposite.

So let’s be clear. If you want to be part of the transition to sustainable energy and the circular economy, a study in chemistry or chemical technology is a perfectly good idea.

Monique van der Veen is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences, department of Chemical Engineering. You can read about the work of her research team here and follow her on Twitter at @MAvanderVeen

Monique van der Veen / Columnist

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