TechnologyChemical Technologies: Towards the Circular Economy

Chemical Technologies: Towards the Circular Economy


The efficient use of resources is one of the great challenges of Europe 2020 and 2030. For this, the chemical sector must rely on innovation to improve its competitiveness and bet on green and sustainable chemistry. In this article we present 3 examples of R&D research lines applied to the chemical sector towards a Circular Economy.

The chemical sector in Spain is made up of more than 3,000 companies and represents about 13% of the Industrial GDP, according to data from Feique, the Business Federation of the Spanish Chemical Industry. It is one of the most exporting sectors of our economy and one of the main ones in investment in R+D+i, accumulating 25% of the total R+D expenditure of the Spanish industry (2015 data). Catalonia, Madrid, Andalusia and Valencia accumulate three quarters of the chemical production.

Industrial gases, dyes and pigments, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, fertilizers, plastic and rubber materials, agrochemicals, detergents, perfumery and cosmetics, synthetic fibers, pharmaceutical specialties… the diversification of the sector is extensive and constitutes in many cases a key element for growth. development of other industrial sectors. To give a piece of information, the chemical industry generates raw materials that supply 98% of productive economic activities.

In order to achieve a sustainable economic model, the agents involved in the chemical sector must bet on a competitive system in which efficient use of resources is made. A new model based on the Circular Economy and the development of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). The social and environmental challenges that we face require a clear commitment to R+D+i and a large part of the sustainable solutions involve developments in the field of chemistry.

From this point of view, sustainable R&D, the chemical sector pivots and is oriented towards the development of new materials and nanomaterials, their applications and efficient uses; the design of reactions and new industrial production processes, cleaner, more efficient and sustainable, that encourage the use of bioenergies and take advantage of raw materials of natural origin, converting them into commercial chemical products, the chemical recovery of waste; and certainly the potential of industrial biotechnology and biorefineries.

On how the chemical sector has to face these new challenges, they reflected on the conference “From innovation to growth: 2018 financing opportunities for the chemical sector “. A meeting, organized by the Valencia Chamber, Redit and Quimacova, in which Manuel Garcia Portillo, President of the Industry, Energy and Environment Commission of the Valencia Chamber and President of AINIA, participated in its opening.

In this article we expose three examples of research lines in course in which AINIA Technological Center is working and that we explain in this conference.

Clean and sustainable extraction processes: The growing potential of Supercritical CO2

Current consumer trends show the need to use chemical processes to obtain purer, more selective products that make better use of raw materials, make it possible to valorize underused sources and avoid the use of toxic organic solvents.

For this, the technology of supercritical fluids, and especially the extraction with CO2 , favor the obtaining of natural active substances free of traces and contaminants, through sustainable, eco-efficient and safe processes.

It is a process of great value to obtain ingredients and active principles from natural sources, with very high purity rates and through clean processes of great value to the chemical industry, both for its numerous applications and for being a sustainable, innocuous alternative. and profitable compared to the use of organic solvents.

Regarding its main advantages over conventional solvent extraction, supercritical CO2 extraction allows high selectivity, adjustable solvent power, use of environmentally friendly solvents and ease of purification thanks to flash separation.

AINIA, through its ALTEX industrial plant, has developed solutions with supercritical CO2 for pure extractions of natural raw materials, achieving first maquila productions for those companies that want to differentiate themselves with sustainable and environmentally friendly production chemical processes.

COASC technology (Co-oxidation in supercritical water) for the treatment of WWTP sludge

Chemical compounds are present in products as common in daily consumption as cosmetics, medicines or cleaning products. These, in a high percentage, end up in wastewater. These compounds are essential for quality of life and our health, but they have negative effects on the environment.

In this sense, the Co-Oxidation in Supercritical Water (COASC) technology represents an innovative technological solution for an adequate sludge treatment process together with other toxic and hazardous waste from the WWTP environment.

This technology is based on the properties of water under conditions of temperature and pressure above its critical point. At this point, water can oxidize any organic compound with absolute efficiency, becoming simple molecules (H2O, CO2, N, among others).

Among its main advantages:

  • 100% elimination of pesticides and ammonium.
  • Energy reuse. Zero balance.
  • 100% phosphorus recovery.
  • 90% sludge reduction.
  • Complete mineralization of residues.

LO2X project. Example of Co-Oxidation technology in Supercritical Water

The LO2X Project, coordinated by AINIA Technological Center, is an example of this technology. Through this project, the environmental and economic benefits of treatment by oxidation with supercritical water of sludge from urban treatment plants have been demonstrated. To this is added the considerable energy savings that it entails, because it is possible to take advantage of the heat produced by oxidation.

In the last phase of the LO2X project, more than 99% of the organic matter present in the WWTP sludge has been eliminated at the outlet of the demonstration facility located in Paterna (Valencia) with a treatment capacity of 100 kg of matter. dry per day In this way, chemical compounds such as imazalil, a fungicide widely used to combat diseases that affect agricultural products, have been completely eliminated.

Project advantages:

  • Design and construction of a prototype.
  • Determination of the operating conditions and the mixing proportions for the treatment.
  • Determination of operating conditions to optimize phosphorus recovery.
  • Reduction of waste generated in the WWTP and improvement of water quality.
  • Optimization from the economy.

This project, co-financed by the European Commission within the framework of the LIFE+ ENVIRONMENT programme, has the participation of a consortium of companies: IVEM, URBASER, IMECAL and SCFI.

This project is part of AINIA’s R&D line of work with the chemical sector in relation to discharge management.

Towards an efficient system of Biorefineries

The increase in the population and its concentration in large nuclei supposes a growth of waste. In Europe, each person generates on average 475 kg of urban waste each year, increasing at an annual rate of 10%. All this supposes an annual biomass production in the European Union of 100 million tons from urban waste.

For this reason, the industry is obliged to seek solutions that promote comprehensive management of urban waste, which contributes to the economic transformation towards a Circular Economy model. And in order to achieve a sustainable and profitable bioeconomy, biorefineries are a key element.

By biorefinery we refer to the facility where a wide spectrum of products of commercial interest is generated, in a sustainable way, from biomass (“International Energy Agency”, IEA); and that it has the necessary equipment to integrate biomass conversion processes into fuels, energy and value-added co-products (“National Renewable Energy Laboratory”, NREL).

The main contribution of biorefineries to the “Circular Economy” concept is their ability to transform biomass into different final products with high added value.

Biomass is transformed through different procedures: physical, chemical, thermochemical or biotechnological, and generally, after primary transformations, secondary transformation processes are necessary that allow us to achieve the desired bioproducts.

Due to the great differences between the different types of biomass, platforms and final products, biorefineries have to adapt through eco-efficient processes, flexible facilities and their ability to integrate the entire value chain.

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