Innovative ideas – How Swiss industry can become more energy efficient – Knowledge


Saving energy is the topic of the hour. Most of us are now aware of how we can use less electricity, gas or fuel in everyday life. But what about the industry?

Swiss industry consumes almost 20 percent of our total energy, in the form of electricity and fossil fuels to generate heat for industrial processes.

Measured against the European average of 25 percent, Switzerland does not look bad at first glance. But no reason to rest on our laurels. Industry must also become more energy efficient – not so much to get through this winter, but to reduce CO2

Efficiency and power saving potential

As with living or mobility, there is a lot of potential for saving electricity in industry: systems are oversized, pumps and compressors are outdated or inefficient. Motors and drive systems account for about three quarters of the electricity consumption in industry.

It is difficult to refurbish all the pumps or systems in Swiss industrial companies, but the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne expects a realistic electricity saving potential of four to five terawatt hours. This roughly corresponds to the potential of all wind power in Switzerland.

Electricity consumption increases where it is possible to switch from combustion to electricity. New systems are more economical and – if the electricity is generated from alternative energies – CO2-neutral.

In industries that require high process temperatures, it is not easy to replace fossil fuel combustion with electricity. In the cement industry, the combustion processes remain critical for the climate: The global cement and concrete industry is currently responsible for around seven percent of global CO2 emissions. That is more than twice as much as global aviation.

Product innovations are becoming more important

Where it is not possible to switch to electricity, innovative ideas are called for: the cement industry is using new processes to bind industrially produced CO2 again in the cement from demolition concrete. The CO2 reacts with the calcium in the cement and hardens. Research is also being carried out into less and less cement-containing concrete, up to completely cement-free concrete. It is important that the stability of the concrete is still correct.

Alternative hydrogen?

Another way: replacing fossil fuels with more climate-friendly variants that do not produce CO2 in the first place. This is where “green” hydrogen is needed – “green” because it is obtained from renewable sources. It is regarded as a great hope for the future because it stores the volatile energy from renewables and can be used to produce synthetic, CO2-neutral fuels.

But there is a problem: Synthetic fuels made from “green” hydrogen are now around five times more expensive than electricity from renewable energy sources. Nevertheless, it is a decisive factor in the energy mix, where such electrification is not possible.

Methane pyrolysis: the “turquoise” hydrogen

Currently put the federal government and industry on a technique to produce this hydrogen from methane – methane is the main component of natural gas. One speaks of “turquoise” hydrogen.

In the so-called methane pyrolysis, the methane is split into its components carbon and hydrogen. In this process, no more CO2 is released into the air as a greenhouse gas, but the resulting carbon is obtained in solid form (as a powder). It could be used for further processing into products or stored underground (carbon capture and storage).

If synthetic methane (from green hydrogen and CO2) is used instead of fossil natural gas, then even negative CO2 emissions result. This is because more CO2 has to be removed from the atmosphere for the production of synthetic methane than is subsequently emitted again through all the process steps.

According to the federal government and industry, the carbon that is produced in solid form during this process could be “further developed into a resource for construction and agriculture” or “used as an admixture in building materials or to enrich humus”.

But: For every tonne of hydrogen that would be produced by methane pyrolysis, about three tons of solid carbon would be produced – there are still no industrial buyers for these quantities.

Further innovations will be needed – the phase-out of fossil fuels in industry remains one of the greatest challenges of our time.

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