Interview with Professor Walter Leitner

Prof. Walter Leitner from RWTH Aachen is leading research into chemical catalysis within the P2X Kopernikus project. This research aims to use renewable energy to convert CO2 and water into products that can be used to store energy, as fuels or as building blocks for the chemical industry.

How did the P2X project come about?

A collaborative project of this size has a long history. One key interface was certainly JARA Energy, which is the energy section of the Jülich Aachen Research Alliance. A Power-to-Fuel project centre already existed there. In addition, we’ve enjoyed a long and very successful collaboration with DECHEMA in the field of CO2 utilisation and for position papers on chemical energy research.

A lot of work in this area in our department also addresses the question of how we can transition from basic research to application. The use of CO2 as a raw material for the plastics industry is an example. The research was carried out in the CAT, the catalysis centre operated jointly with the Covestro company at RWTH Aachen and funded by the BMBF, and the results translated into reality this year in a plant with a 5,000 tonne production capacity.

This successful networking and cooperation across the boundaries of institutions and specialist disciplines were extremely valuable in the development of the P2X project.

How do you envisage collaboration with other partners?

We’ve known many of the scientific partners for a long time, and also worked with them before. However, within such a large consortium it’s a particular challenge to be coordinating so many different partners and their work. We are being helped in this by support from the RWTH Center for Molecular Transformations (CMT) in matters of content and organisation; without their support, the project management would be scarcely feasible. These employees act as “catalysts” with their colleagues in the Jülich research centre and in DECHEMA, to produce efficient collaboration within the coordinating group.

What are your objectives?

We want to grasp the Energiewende as an opportunity and not just see it as a challenge. You could also say that we want to harvest the electricity from renewable technologies in order to use it at a higher value. The broad-based and long-term approach being taken in the Kopernikus project allows us to try out new technologies across industrial sectors and address fundamental questions relating to both the scientific and social framework.

What form will the first steps take?

For the first phase of the project, the research programme is divided into six research clusters. Three clusters deal with electrolysis and co-electrolysis to produce the raw materials hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide using electricity from renewable sources. The other three clusters deal with catalysis to convert these base materials specifically into the desired products.

In the second phase of the project we will consolidate our research results into technology clusters. To do so we will certainly need a huge amount of the knowledge, know-how and infrastructure from other projects because, in the third phase the most promising ideas are to be brought to completion and implemented.

The accompanying Roadmap process is of great importance for this development as it supplies information as to how much renewable energy is available under fluctuating scenarios and where the most economically attractive options present themselves.

What influence does the extended funding period for the Kopernikus project have on your work?

A great influence. Research is not a linear process - some approaches to the problem are currently far more technologically advanced than others. We’ll also have to discard ideas again over the coming years. That’s why clear milestones are defined to structure the development process, which makes it possible to include innovations at an early stage and also work on more mature technologies and longer-term solutions. 

What applications do you think stand a good chance?

Dynamic research, development and industrial implementation over the past few years have shown that economically successful value chains can be designed using CO2 and bio-mass as carbon sources. There’s certainly much more potential to be realised here by linking-in electricity from renewable sources.

The transport and mobility sector will experience enormous future growth as a result of globalisation. Propulsion technologies will change and e-mobility or fuel cells will play an increasing role. At the same time, the ambitious climate goals can only be achieved if sustainable propulsion systems based on the internal combustion engine are also available. For this reason we’re working intensively on synthetic fuels that burn more cleanly and efficiently and so are better for the environment. If that’s done intelligently, it can save just as much CO2 as e-mobility. Here - amongst other directions - we’re able to build on the basic research performed in our “Tailor-made fuels from bio-mass” Cluster of Excellence.

What are the main hurdles?

Although, in principle we’re working to nature’s own template to produce physical substances from CO2, water and solar energy, we nevertheless need new and innovative scientific approaches in order to implement this concept technologically. The second major challenge will be creating interfaces between the partners and coordinating a very large number of individual activities so that our consortium can stay focussed on the objectives and develop efficiently and dynamically. For this we need firstly a good structure and secondly sound communication with each other. 

Why do you attach value to the inclusion of civil society in your project?

Because no technology has a chance if ultimately no-one wants to use it. That’s true of both the economic and social dimensions of sustainability! For this reason we’ll be collaborating closely with various stakeholders from the economy, society and politics in the civil society advisory committee. The BMBF has conceived the Kopernikus projects in such a way as to make this possible: an excellent and courageous step.

What contribution is P2X making to the Energiewende?

P2X is a building block in a complex system. It permits large amounts of CO2 to be saved while at the same time allowing sustainable value creation. New technologies and new business models, based on decentralised structures, that are able to react flexibly to fluctuating solar and wind energy supply are just as conceivable as solutions built around large, centrally organised industrial complexes. In this we don’t want to change the world to fit around the technologies, but rather to develop technologies that satisfy social needs, make economic sense and deliver ecological progress.