Interview Matthias Beller

There Are Already Many Technologies Today Which Promote Sustainable Chemistry

research talked to Professor Matthias Beller, Director of the Leibniz Institute for Catalysis at the University of Rostock. Together with his research group, Beller is developing innovative catalysts that can help make production processes more economical and sustainable.

On the trail of innovative catalysts: Professor Matthias Beller, Director of the Leibniz Institute for Catalysis at the University of Rostock, wants to use his research to make the chemical industry more sustainable.

Story check

  • Challenge:
    Many chemical production processes have certain sub-phases that require toxic substances which are damaging to the environment, consume large amounts of energy and are expensive.
  • Solution:
    The catalysts developed by the researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Catalysis at the University of Rostock make possible chemical reactions that generate high yields, produce fewer critical by-products and require low amounts of specific energy.
  • Benefit:
    Innovative catalysts can help make chemical production processes more economical and sustainable.

What are the benefits of using catalysts?

Catalysts make it possible to carry out chemical reactions that produce high yields and few by-products and which require low amounts of specific energy. They are therefore an essential requirement for making chemical production processes more sustainable and economical, whether in the chemical, pharmaceutical, food production, energy technology or material development industries. My research group is working intensively on this topic. We are developing catalysts and catalytic processes which are above all environmentally friendly and at the same time cost-effective.

Making production processes more sustainable - that is the goal of green chemistry.

What are the biggest challenges for industry when establishing sustainable chemistry processes?

Firstly, it's really not that easy to measure sustainability because manufacturing an active pharmaceutical ingredient can often involve 10 to 15 complex transformation phases, for example. Chemical processes must therefore be accurately analyzed and classified. Thanks to modern analysis methods and sensors, a lot has improved in the last few years to make sustainability more measurable. Secondly, we naturally require suitable technologies which allow chemical transformations to be carried out efficiently. We have seen enormous progress in this area in recent years as well, especially concerning the development of efficient catalysts.

What strategies do we have to make chemical production processes greener?

We try to replace toxic substances, for example, and we try to use significantly fewer and less harmful solvents. Reducing the amount of waste is also an important aspect. Attention is given to making processes work with renewable resources rather than fossil fuels, and to recycling solvents. Suitable catalysts can often make this kind of chemical process even more environmentally friendly. Furthermore, they make it possible to use renewable electric power or direct solar energy, carbon dioxide or biological waste to power chemical transformations. These areas are being intensively researched worldwide.

Avoiding toxic substances, recycling solvents, using renewable resources - these are just three examples of measures which can help production processes become more sustainable.

Could that make green chemistry possible, i.e. chemistry without oil and gas?

In principle, yes. Ten years ago, an idea like that would have seemed very revolutionary. However, many of the technologies which are needed for this are now in routine use. With renewable energy from the sun or wind, water can be split into hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2). Together with the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is generated by industry or power plants, we can then produce green methanol, an important basic component for chemical companies. Other important basic chemicals such as propylene and butene are derived in turn from methanol. Important chemical building blocks can therefore be produced on the basis of H2, CO2 and O2, which allows us to build a wide product spectrum ranging from pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals to consumer goods such as fuels, polymers and packaging.

What basic conditions are required for sustainable chemistry?

New technologies always lead to change - and that means additional expense for businesses. People understandably prefer what they know works well. Therefore, governments should create positive incentives to promote innovations that enable green chemistry. In addition, it is important that things change on a global level, like the CO2 tax which some countries have already introduced. There must be worldwide consensus so that sustainable processes can spread and have a positive effect on the climate and the environment.