Ernst Homburg: “Society needs to provide the landscape for sustainable technologies to succeed, and to move away from petrochemistry”

16-11-2020 | P2Integrate

Ernst Homburg: “Society needs to provide the landscape for sustainable technologies to succeed, and to move away from petrochemistry”Driving the transition of the chemical industry towards full sustainability requires more than innovation. It is equally - if not more - important that society succeeds in creating a 'landscape' in which sustainable chemical technology will come to full fruition. This is one of the many lessons to be learned from an analysis of historical transitions in the chemical industry, according to Professor Ernst Homburg from Maastricht University. The current crisis induced by the Covid-19 pandemic doesn't make the outlook any brighter, but might also have an upside.

"I do see a transition in the making, but more urgency is required to really set things in motion", says Homburg. "Ultimately, when global warming is soaring and even the biggest sceptics give in, society will be ready to really take measures. Of course we will have to take every effort to induce change sooner. But the lesson to be learned from historical transitions is that it will be hard, and that it will take decades, maybe up to almost a century." Homburg, who is emeritus Professor of History of Science and Technology and their Mutual Connections, has published extensively on the history of the chemical industry. At VoltaChem's Annual Event last year, he presented an analysis of historical transitions. Even though every era has its own peculiarities, an historical analysis provides insight into the prospects of the industry for change.

Arduous processes

Three major transitions have preceded the imminent transition towards sustainable chemistry. The 19th century saw two of them, both providing alternatives for plants and animals as raw material providers. The mining of mineral resources and the rise of inorganic chemistry induced the first transition. The mining of coal, both as a feedstock for organic chemicals and as a new energy source, fuelled the second. The third transition took place in the 20th century, when coal was replaced by oil and natural gas, both as feedstock and energy source.

What, in retrospect, might seem like logical changes were in fact rather arduous processes, Homburg explains. "It's never about straightforward implementation of novel technology. Understanding transitions requires a multi-level perspective, taking multiple socio-technical aspects into account. It starts with many interlinked features of the production and supply chain. Beyond that are societal and economical aspects such as regulations, policies and market dynamics. And adding to this all are the large international differences that occur in many aspects." 

To really break ground with electrification of the chemical industry - which is at the heart of the VoltaChem program - it is crucial to look beyond technology, Homburg argues. It is important to develop a broad view on the present and the future state of the industry and to identify the socio-economical bottlenecks. "Learning from the past", he says, "we see that 'single issue' approaches, such as, in this case, focusing solely on CO2 reduction, does not make much sense. It is more effective to reflect broadly on promising 'niches' and on how to protect them against competition by proven petrochemical technology. And, I'm sorry to say, we have to be patient. Real transition will take a long time, there are no shortcuts."

Transition starts from niches

Assessing the major historical transitions of the chemical industry has taught Homburg and colleagues that transitions are often fuelled from niches. Since common large-scale technology is utterly cost-effective, for novel technologies it is very difficult to immediately be competitive. But in specific, dedicated niches, a business case might be established. This then allows the novelty to proceed along the learning curve and realize effects of scale so that it becomes able to challenge the established technology. A nice example of this is the emergence of the synthetic dyes industry in the second half of the 19th century. These dyes were produced from coal tar that became available as a by-product of coal gasification for town gas lighting purposes. At first, the synthetic dyes were far more expensive than the common natural colorants. However, because of their brilliance they became popular for dyeing silk, which was a niche where wealthy customers were willing to pay the extra money. At the beginning of the 20th century, almost all natural dyes had been replaced by their synthetic counterparts. "There are many such examples to be found within each of the historical transitions", Homburg says. "But is important to realize that equally important to the 'niche' concept are what we call the 'landscape' factors. These refer to external factors, to circumstances beyond control of the industry. For instance, the boom in synthetic dye development was predominantly in Germany, where at the time no patent laws were in place. And the transition from coal towards oil benefited tremendously from the political power of the US after the second world war, guaranteeing a stable world oil supply." 

Society can mould the landscape

So generally speaking, it is because of crucial aspects of the landscape that a niche technology can develop and become powerful enough to outcompete existing technology. This is a meaningful observation that is of significant relevance to current times, where innovative sustainable technologies struggle to replace the established fossil-based state-of-the-art. Society has to step in here, Homburg argues. "The current very low prices of oil and gas are rather disastrous for any competing sustainable technology. These are to a great extend the result of politics and supply strategies that are beyond the control of industry. On the other hand there is for instance the lack of infrastructure to support large-scale electrification. If we want to give novel sustainable technology any chance to succeed, we have to counteract such limiting landscape factors." A crucial landscape factor in making the VoltaChem efforts a success is of course the presence of infrastructure to support large-scale electrification. Homburg: "It is very important for society to work on this in a timely manner."

The coronavirus pandemic

In 2020 the world has seen the climate crisis joined by another global crisis: the coronavirus pandemic. For Homburg this is a perfect example of a landscape issue that has to be dealt with. "In the past we have seen the profound effect of wars and natural disasters on socio-technical development. This will be no different with the current pandemic." However, as easy as it is to determine this, so difficult will it be to predict the consequences. "Corona will for sure introduce a number of crisis phenomena that will have an indirect effect on the transition towards sustainability. It will be difficult to assess this, but anyone trying to pursue a transition has to recalibrate their activities during a crisis. In general, there's of course the risk that so much money and attention is going into solving the corona crisis, that it will reduce the prospects of the sustainability transition. On the other hand, it can provide opportunities. Working at home could be widely accepted, reducing the need for transportation. The future of air travel might be quite different from what we thought less than a year ago. So there might be an upside." 

Would you like to be at the forefront of the latest developments and insights relevant to electrification of the chemical industry? And get the opportunity to discuss this with key players from industry and the VoltaChem team on a frequent basis? Then you might be interested in a membership of our VoltaChem Community. To know more, please get in touch with our Community Manager Monique Rijkers

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