How to Promote Chemistry and How Protect Our Environment? – New Kids’ Lab Program Launched in Debrecen

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Agora Debrecen has launched an exciting program for kids about how to protect our environment. Dr. Thomas Narbeshuber, managing director of BASF Hungária Kft. and head of BASF’s Southeast European region, said that as part of their commitment to sustainability and education, they are launching their new Kölyöklabor program in cooperation with Agora.


How the BASF is fighting for a cleaner nature?

We have a large number of programs and these programs did not only start recently. We have a slogan, a key strategy slogan which you can read everywhere since 2011 and it says that  we create chemistry for a sustainable future.

First of all, we started to renew our portfolio so that we could use products that are sustainable. Secondly, we try to decarbonize all our processes, because they are energy intense. Thirdly, we try to bring neutral and recycled materials back into the process chain and these are the large ticket items.

If you think about the product portfolio, BASF is one of the key players for example in producing kettled active materials for batteries. We also have a proper recycling technology for these end of life batteries. Because electromobility will definitely help decarbonize the traffic. If you think about the housing sector, it also consumes a lot of primary fossil energies like gas which needs a lot of electricity, but you need less electricity or less heat or primary fuels if you properly insulate your house. We showed 20 years ago, at the beginning of the 2000s, that we can bring a normal house down from 20 l heating oil equivalents / sqm and year down to 1. So with the help of insulation, proper windows, indirect ventilation, you can save a lot of energy. We act on both sides, decarbonizing our processes and also producing materials which help the world to be more sustainable.


Do you think that electromobility is good for the Earth?

I think electromobility will help a lot. In a classical combustion engine the efficiency is only  25 %, so 75% of your primary energy / fuel is lost in heat, in friction or whatever you have. An electric vehicle has an efficiency of 95 %, so the primary energy which you put into the vehicle is used very effectively in the car. Secondly, electric cars are much less noisy than combustion engines and especially in the city traffic they are emission free. What needs to be tackled is the production of the primary energy as clean electricity. Because it makes relatively little sense to run a coal fired power plant and then feed this electricity to an electric car. It makes a certain sense, but it would be better if you had completely green energy by wind or solar power and we should store these capacities, too.I think we will need gas, nuclear energy, and then to feed this primary energy to the electric vehicles.


What kind of energy source do you think will be mostly used in the future in Europe?

Hungary is fortunately betting on a multiplicity of different energy sources. Hungary is expanding its solar capacity, currently in Hungary there are 5 Gigawatt solar capacities installed and the country is going to expand to 12 Gigawatt in the next few years. The nuclear power plant in Paks will be double sized more or less, so we will get a 1.x Gigawatt out of Paks. There are certain intentions also, not in the Great Plain of Hungary, but near the border of Austria, there are a lot of windparks coming up, but we will also need the balancing capacity in terms of gas. What I like very much in Hungary is the plans of the government to expand the utilization of geothermal energy for heating houses. This way you can spare. Hungary is sitting on a bubble of hot water. It’s obviously not hot enough to produce electricity, but it is hot enough to heat houses, and that already takes a lot of the primary issues away. If we think about Europe, then you can see that South-Eastern Europe has a lot of shores and a lot of sun. They are using wind energy on all the shores, be it Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia or Slovenia. Wherever there are shores or mountains, you can have a good wind situation, so you can set up wind power. Solar energy is a big topic, especially in South-Eastern Europe, because you have a lot of sunny hours there. If you go to the north, e.g. the nordic countries: Norway, Sweden, Denmark or Finland, they have a lot of land space where practically nobody is living, but they have a good wind situation, so a lot of wind power is expected to come from there.

Overall, I think Europe will need different energy sources, because we can not rely on only one, there is no one silver bullet, because the energy demand in Europe is so high that we will really need to focus on all the resources. We will also need energy vectors. We did not talk about hydrogen which can be an important vector if you can produce it economically. Currently, what the EU is facing is only green hydrogen. Green hydrogen is produced out of water with green electricity by electrolysis, and this is unfortunately 7 times more expensive than classical hydrogen, so it’s not competitive. You cannot run an industry with that or heat your house or fuel your car. So, we need to come to other forms of hydrogen production and need to allow them also in the EU. BASF is developing a process which starts from natural gas as the classical process, but then goes into a methane pyrolysis, meaning that you put used hydrogen and solid carbon instead of carbon dioxide and the solid carbon can be easily dumped, it’s not dangerous. It can even be utilized further in other industry processes. Methane pyrolysis is estimated to only be 2 times more expensive than the classical method.

We have other ways, for example carbon capture and storage, where the Americans are fostering very much now, and in the US, it is already a business model. You capture the carbon dioxide out of your industry processes, which you first generate, and then you liquify and then pump it under gas and store it for good. Another utilization would be the carbon capture and utilization, so we use the carbon dioxide and make it usable for fuels for other chemical products akin. So, if we remain technology open, then we have a lot of chances, but we will also need these vectors, because hydrogen in Europe currently is not really economical and people consider e.g. ammonia, which contains a lot of hydrogen, as a vector for Europe. We can produce it in the Middle East or Northern Africa where there is a lot of sun, a lot of wind and green energy, and then release the hydrogen again out of the ammonia. So, if we remain technology open, we can manage this energy transition.


What do you think about nuclear energy? In Germany, most of the plants or maybe all of them are already closed and electricity prices are going higher, the companies are suffering from high fees, and the population, too, so what can be the solution there?

I think, nuclear energy has one big problem, this is the nuclear waste, where nobody has a real solution. You can store it underground. But we strongly believe that we will need nuclear energy at least as a transition technology for the next decades to come until we have really sufficient other sources of renewable energy available to facilitate the energy transition. But as a transition technology I think it is needed.


Do you think that it will be over in a few decades?

We will see how the energy demands develop, but I think nuclear technology is not sustainable in the long term, because we create all the nuclear waste which is radiating for 10 thousands of years, or even 100 thousands of years. So, we really need to be sure to store this waste in a safe place. It is an important discussion in many of the countries, but yes as a transition technology it will be needed, definitely.


What do you think about plastic waste? We can see that in most of the places that people can use paper towels for example.

Or packaging, plates, yes. As I said before in my speech, plastic waste is primarily not a problem for the industry. Plastic waste is a problem for the state and the municipalities, beacuse they have not created sufficient waste management systems. Now, this is being built up in all Europe. Let’s see MOL in Hungary, which is taking care of waste collection, waste separation and recycling. In Hungary, the current landfill quota of waste is approximately 70% and they’re going to bring it down to 10%, a similar quota like in Austria or in Germany where they have established their waste management systems way earlier. So, plastic waste is not the problem, you just need to collect it properly and separate it properly.


Which do you think is better, to take the bottles, wash them then fill it again or to recycle them in factories?

It depends. Let me start with glass. There was a trend, for example in Austria, when they were promoting glass bottles, because they can be reused. If you do a life cycle analysis, then a glass bottle is a total catastrophe. Why? Because it has a very high energy demand when it’s created, because it happens at high temperatures and then you need to transport the glass bottles, which are very heavy, so for a liter of liquid you transport it takes another kilo of glass bottle or half a kilo of glass bottle. A plastic bottle is much more favorable. Now, if it comes to the recycling of plastic bottles, if you can get the plastic really clean, so the same type of plastic is collected with them, then you could think about mechanical recycling. If it’s not clean, then you better shred it and rework it on a molecular level. As for washing, which happens with glass bottles or plastic bottles, I think it is currently not a really established technology. I would rather go for recycling, because you always need to think about food safety, human safety, because people are drinking out of these bottles and this really needs to be clean. One of the problems with plastic recycling comes from the mixed plastic waste, and this is what I mentioned in my speech. If you once have established the system, and it is working, people are taking bottles into this token system where if you buy a bottle, you have to return it and you get some money in exchange. If that is happening, then you have all the same bottles. So, you have the same material, and then it’s much easier to do this whole recycling process.


What do you think about the fashion industry? Many people say that they are the most polluting industry on Earth.

That is – to an extent – true, because we all have clothes today which contain non-natural fibers, so-called plastic fibers. When you wash these clothes, then you produce micro plastic. So, 95% of micro plastic is coming from washing clothes, not out of cosmetics or out of whatever is blamed. It’s coming out of washing our clothes. This is currently an unsolved problem, which needs to be tackled, and I am sure, with new innovations, we will get hold of this problem.


Do you think that these kinds of educational programs, which you are supporting here and probably in other countries, will help the new generations to have such inventions?

Yes, we strongly believe that we need to start with the children and the young ones in the educational program. We don’t do this program only to inspire the kids, but also to show the respective national education system that maybe the way they are teaching Chemistry, Physics and other scientific subjects today is out of date. So we need to take a look at the education system from a different angle. And this is what we try to promote here. It’s playful experimenting and understanding of the world to trigger this spirit for chemistry. Of course, I know that we still learn Chemistry, and we start with the atomic model and then we calculate, so we start from the classical education way. Children simply find that terribly boring. Here they can experiment, they can understand why this or that happens, or what density is for example. I’m pretty sure that if we get this passion into kids, then there will be a lot of good ideas and inventions in the future.


Do you think that the engineering sector is happy about the new generations who have new innovations? Are they in difficulties right now because of the way they have been taught?

Not yet, but you can see it coming. In Hungary, this year and last year we had only 6 students in the whole country who study to become a teacher of Chemistry. This is a tremendously low number, this is nothing. So we don’t educate our educators, how the kids shall learn and how to get this passion. We as companies can do a few spots like we do it here. We will have these twelve thousand kids in the next few years, but it’s not too many. So, these important things need to be within the curriculum of schools throughout the country.


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