Chemical Manufacturer

German Chemical Manufacturer Covestro Swaps Oil for Sugar in Climate Initiative


At one of Europe’s leading chemical complexes, German company Covestro is making strides in reducing its carbon footprint by experimenting with using sugar as a base material for manufacturing instead of oil. The pilot project involves the production of aniline, a key chemical used in making foams that are commonly found in mattresses, armchairs, and building insulation.

While the large-scale commercial production using sugar as a raw material may still be years away, this initiative marks an important step forward in the chemical industry’s efforts to combat climate change. Walter Leitner from Aachen University, involved in the aniline project for a decade, highlighted that a quarter of the 100 million barrels of oil produced globally each day are directly utilized by the chemical industry, emphasizing the need for a complete overhaul of the sector.

Covestro, a former division of Bayer, has initiated trials at its chemical complex in Leverkusen, Western Germany. In a 100-square-meter room, aniline is being extracted from a complex network of pipes, replacing the traditional method that relies on crude oil derivatives like naphtha and benzene. An innovative process developed by University of Stuttgart researchers involves treating fermented sugar with chemicals to produce aniline, the base ingredient for manufacturing foams.

Traditionally, the production of aniline from crude oil sources emits large quantities of carbon dioxide, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The pilot project in Leverkusen currently extracts half a tonne of aniline daily, a small fraction of the global annual production of around six million tonnes.

While using plant-based materials may reduce reliance on fossil fuels, the carbon neutrality of such processes is debatable. Jens Guenther from Germany’s Federal Environment Agency cautioned about the environmental impact of using cultivated biomass like maize, sugar cane, and sugar beet, which can lead to CO2 and methane emissions, biodiversity loss, and high water consumption.

BASF, another German chemical giant, is also exploring the use of organic waste, agricultural products, or vegetable oils to produce basic chemicals like aniline. However, challenges such as the availability of organic matter, higher production costs compared to oil-based methods, and the need for significant CO2 savings in manufacturing processes must be overcome to scale up these initiatives.

Amidst a crisis in the energy-intensive chemicals sector caused by rising power costs and bureaucratic hurdles in Germany, companies like Covestro and BASF are navigating the shift towards more sustainable production methods. The success of these projects will depend on proving their economic viability and demonstrating substantial environmental benefits compared to traditional oil-based processes.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research.
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it.