Breakthrough innovations: where the magic happens
At Umicore, our R&D teams don’t only create new processes and products – their innovations also reduce the impact of our operations to protect land, water and air. A recent project at our Hoboken plant in Belgium converts harmful emissions of nitrous oxide (N₂O) into nitric acid. The initiative perfectly reflects Umicore’s closed loop business model of turning waste into value.
Umicore’s spirit of innovation has always been strong. With this same spirit we first captured sulphur dioxide (SO₂) exhaust gas from our precious metals refining smelter to make sulphuric acid. However, this process creates nitrosyl as a by-product, which produces high amounts of nitrous oxide (N₂O) when treated. As N₂O is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent that CO₂, our R&D team was determined to find a solution. After extensive lab research and development with internal and external partners, we developed a ground-breaking new method for transforming the nitrosyl by-product into nitric acid without emitting any nitrous oxide. Umicore designed a unique and pioneering nitric acid plant to perform this important task, featuring a new reactor process that has not been used at this scale before.
Cutting 40,000 tonnes of CO₂ per year
The new plant, which opened in late 2022, prevents the formation of N₂O when converting nitrosyl into nitric acid. By doing this, Umicore has been able to cut its N₂O emissions by 100% at Hoboken, and by 20% company-wide, compared to 2021, which has reduced overall carbon footprint by almost 40,000 tonnes of CO₂ per year. In addition, this innovative solution also turns harmful waste into a resource – core to Umicore’s closed loop business model.
Nils Broes, Project Manager Technology, who was involved in the project, says the reduction in CO₂ accounts for 13% of Hoboken’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions. ‘’So, with one project,’’ he says, ‘’we’ve been able to make great progress in our carbon footprint reduction.’’
‘’The goal of this project is not to make nitric acid in large quantities – there are plenty of bigger dedicated plants that do that. The whole purpose was to convert a harmful by-product into something that has value and doesn’t contribute to emissions of greenhouse gases.’’
Sebastiaan Peelman, Scientist at Corporate R&D
Not only does the new plant provide an important sustainability differentiator for Umicore compared to competitors, it also helps deliver on the pillars of our Let’s Go for Zero ambition, which aims to achieve net zero Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
From lab to plant
Sebastiaan explains how R&D tested the process before it was scaled up for production. ‘’We developed the process with isolated lab and pilot tests, in which we determined the chemistry, established the mathematical models and the theoretical basis. Once this phase was done, our engineering team and industrial partner took over so that the actual technology could be sized, designed and installed. However, R&D still works closely with our industrial partner, identifying things that may go wrong in the plant and determining how they can be fixed.’’
In fact, the technology and processes involved in the new plant are so advanced that start-up challenges constantly tested the ingenuity of the R&D team. As Nils says, ‘’This project has been a real challenge for everyone involved. Technology like this has never been built before, so some ups and downs are to be expected. Breakthrough innovations are by definition a step into the unknown.’’
‘’Where the magic happens’’
Not only was the chemistry of the process highly complex, but also the mechanical elements of the plant, especially with the involvement of completely new technology. Sebastiaan says, ‘’This is where the real magic happens, when you see how chemistry and our know how makes everything else work. R&D had a very large role and it is a great innovation in the whole plant.’’
Our innovation and technology will add a significant competitive advantage for Umicore as future emission controls tighten. ’As climate regulations become stricter, we now have a plant that produces significantly lower emissions than our competitors. We have basically pre-empted future regulations by doing this,’’ says Sebastiaan.
Another advantage is in Umicore’s closed-loop model, as the plant will produce nitric acid that can be re-used at Hoboken, reducing our reliance on external supplies. As external supplies of nitric acid have significant Scope 3 emissions linked to them, this will further support Umicore’s climate targets.
‘’This is a real example of innovation, insight, research, cooperation, co- creation, and resilience. It’s not been an easy development, but it creates a real impact on our sustainability and our ecological footprint, as well as being a real differentiator for Umicore in the market.’’
Nils Broes, Project Manager Technology