Pleased to meet: Earl Goetheer

09-03-2020 | P2Chemicals

Technical Lead Power-2-Chemicals

Pleased to meet: Earl GoetheerIn this new series we will put the spotlight on the experts from the VoltaChem team. On a regular basis, we will interview a team member and get to know him or her more in-depth. We will explore their role, background, expertise, motivations, ambition, and much more. First in line: Earl Goetheer, Technical Lead of the Power-2-Chemicals program line at VoltaChem.

Earl Goetheer obtained an MSc in bioprocess engineering from Wageningen University & Research (1997) and a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Eindhoven University of Technology (2002). He started his career as a research scientist at TNO and worked as a process engineer at Janssen Pharmaceutica. In 2007, he returned to TNO to become Technology Manager Separation Technology and, in 2012, Principal Scientist Process Technology. Since 2015 he is VoltaChem's Technical Lead in the Power-2-Chemicals program line. In 2018 Earl Goetheer was appointed part-time full Professor of Electrochemical Transformation of CO2 at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft).

What does your job at VoltaChem involve?

"As 'Technical Lead Power-2-Chemicals' I'm at the wheel of the VoltaChem efforts in electrochemical synthesis. We focus on the cost-efficient conversion of carbon dioxide and biobased feedstock into valuable chemicals. I'm not involved at the executive level of all individual projects, but I give direction to research and development, and provide leads and suggestions. And I'm the figurehead for this important program line."

What's so important about it?

"It's important because electricity will become one of the most important drivers for future chemicals production. In future chemistry, the energy needed to make materials and chemicals will be provided by electrons. As a chemical engineer I have been trained to build oil refineries and the like. But these are being closed and it's up to us to replace them with new technology. That's why I find it so important to show the potential of electrochemistry to industry. By translating the principles of electrochemical conversions into viable processes, and bringing these to an industrial scale. So that in ten, fifteen years, we will have a real electrochemistry-based industry in the Netherlands and far beyond." 

That sounds rather optimistic. How will you make this happen?

"First of all: I'm really convinced this is the future. Electrons are getting cheaper and cheaper, and industry is always on the lookout for cost reduction. Taking into account that current technology based on fossil resources will become ever more expensive, to me there's no doubt that the future of chemistry will be in electrons. But of course, industry needs time to move away from fossil resources. Bringing novel concepts to industrial maturity takes at least a decade. With the collaborative VoltaChem efforts and our shared research program we can initiate and accelerate this development. By focusing now on relatively small-scale production of high-quality chemicals, we are gaining experience in industrial electrochemistry based on biomass and CO2. So that in the near future, let’s say from 2030 onwards, we can start using really large-scale processes for the production of bulk chemicals such as ethylene and fuels."

That would require massive amounts of CO2. Where will industry get that from? 

"Ultimately, it has to be captured from the air, there's lots of CO2 there. In my inaugural lecture at TU Delft, I have presented four important phases in combating atmospheric CO2 levels. We have to start by reducing our fossil-based energy consumption, for instance by process improvements or by using biomass. Secondly, we have to stop releasing CO2 in the atmosphere as soon as possible. So as long as we are still using fossil resources, the only sensible option is to capture and store the CO2. In the third phase, when we have developed the electrochemistry to utilize CO2, we no longer have to store it but we can use it as a resource. In the fourth phase we will directly remove CO2 from the atmosphere and realize a sustainable cycle of renewable carbon. At TU Delft, we are already looking at that final phase, where we link air capture to electrochemistry."

What is your 'man on the moon' ambition? What do you envision in the long run?

"That we are able to make all our chemicals and materials based on CO2, water and nitrogen captured from air. Then we no longer need fossil resources, just air! I admit it's somewhat of a Star Trek concept, but that's my spot-on-the-horizon."

What more should we know about Earl Goetheer? 

"If you're asking me if I have specific hobby's or interests I would have to disappoint you. I'm one of those guys for whom their work is their hobby. I'm an inventor, I want to sort things out, find solutions and realize them. What you might not know is that I have over fifty patents in the field of process technology. I live a great life, I can do the things that I like. At VoltaChem and TNO, I develop technology for tomorrow. At TU Delft I work together with students on the technology for the days after tomorrow. Isn't that wonderful?"

Want to get in touch with Earl Goetheer? Contact him directly.
The video of Goetheer's inaugural lecture can be viewed here.


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