“It is not difficult to follow the arguments and the goals for decarbonisation and sustainability. There are big questions about how to get there, ” Dr Thomas Niehoff, founder of combustion POTENTIAL GmbH in Germany

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AL Circle

Dr Thomas Niehoff studied mechanical engineering at the technical university RWTH Aachen (Germany) and later made his PhD thesis at the IEHK in Aachen. Dr. Thomas Niehoff has worked for over 30 years in the industrial gas industry. He managed an R&D department in an executive position an R&D department and projects for metallurgical gas applications there. EH&S has always been the highest priority in his work area. He combines decades of experience with expertise in R&D management and melting and combustion technology. Dr. Thomas Niehoff is an inventor or co-inventor of 14 patents. He is the founder and owner of combustion POTENTIAL GmbH in Germany.

AL Circle: What is you background in this industry?


Dr. Thomas Niehoff : I have worked my entire professional career as a combustion specialist and metallurgist for large multinational industrial gas companies. In these 30 years from the first day, we developed applications to reduce specific energy consumption and increase productivity. This was done very successfully and helped many customers get the economics straight and improved. In Europe, energy costs have been high for decades. From my perspective, I can say that the aluminium industry has been highly active and delivered good energy savings and emissions reduction results over the past 30 years.

AL Circle: How would you describe the current state of the aluminium industry regarding decarbonisation and sustainability efforts?

Dr. Thomas Niehoff : It is not difficult to follow the arguments and the goals for decarbonisation and sustainability. There are big questions about how to get there. Here, I can only speak for Germany, maybe Europe. There, it is discussed and hoped that green hydrogen and green electricity usage instead of fossil fuels will help to get climate neutral. When I look at the aluminium industry, I would like to split it into primary and secondary production. To my mind, there has to be a clear shift to secondary production since this shift has the potential to save 90 to 95% of CO2 emissions. Alternatively, all electricity for primary production has to come from renewables. Secondary aluminium production has many potentials where it can be improved. One of the routes tested is: How does hydrogen as a fuel affect the production process, quality, safety, economics and melting process results? These are difficult questions to answer. Due to hydrogen availability and cost, the tests are relatively short. This is unfortunate because there is so much interest currently.

AL Circle: Are there any specific regulations or standards affecting your industry's sustainability practices?

Dr. Thomas Niehoff : In Germany, we have the Climate Protection Plan 2050 (Klimaschutzplan 2050). It describes in which industry area and by when how much CO2 emissions have to be reduced. We currently have rising CO2 taxes and energy prices, which will incentivise us to act now. In Germany and Europe, several federal funding programs support the energy transition towards climate-neutral fuels in industry.

AL Circle: What measures should be implemented or planned to achieve the carbon reduction goals envisioned by the industry?

Dr. Thomas Niehoff : Here I have many ideas. It is difficult for the industry to plan since the availability and cost of green energy and fuels are not known today, and the cost is expected to be very high. If the government would guarantee the availability of green and climate-neutral energy and fuel in a specific geography by a time frame and also fix the cost range, then the industry could sit down and plan. Imagine that an aluminium producer has already reduced energy consumption and CO2 emissions by 40% over the last 15 years. This is already quite an achievement! However, this company is now asked to lower again by 40% and has not offered the basis to do this. Instead of ruining the company by draining all the money through climate taxes and high energy costs, the aluminium producer might decide to leave Germany/Europe and run the business abroad. Here, I even see the potential for worsening the climate situation because it is possible to start the business in another country at lower energy efficiency levels.

AL Circle: How can we support sustainability targets that support continuous growth in the aluminium industry?

Dr. Thomas Niehoff : I believe we all have a role and responsibility. We have to open up to the changes and challenges to come and contribute positively. All in their area of expertise and capabilities. Growth is typically driven by demand. Lower demand causes lower growth. I think the demand for secondary aluminium will rise strongly and hopefully positively impact the climate. I also believe that it can be difficult to expect high annual growth rates and simultaneously do all in a climate-neutral way.

AL Circle: Are you aware of any specific technologies or innovations being developed or implemented to help decarbonise the aluminium industry?

Dr. Thomas Niehoff : Sure, today, efforts are going in many directions to decarbonise the aluminium industry. To name a few: plasma burner technology, a combination of electric and fossil-fired melting, biofuel firing, renewable energy focus and green hydrogen firing. Most of this is not new, but now there is more motivation to do it than some decades ago. This may trigger new ideas and innovations that contribute to even more variety. For all these new technologies and solutions, we have to wait for plasma burner technology, biofuel availability, and green hydrogen. Waiting often proves to be a passive state and can be a waste of time. I recall we did not take hydrogen for combustion because it was rare and expensive. This is currently still the situation. I also believe that green hydrogen cannot beat the cost of natural gas for quite some time to come. I suggest not wasting time to improve energy efficiency, productivity, and cost by measures available today, and this will even help improve the transfer to climate fuels such as green hydrogen. Today, the melting and heating conditions in a furnace can be monitored, analysed and optimised, digitalisation can be implemented, air preheating is available today, oxygen-assisted and oxy-fuel combustion is available, and there is more that can be done now. I estimate that in many cases, just by tightening the furnace conditions, 10 to 15% of energy can be saved. If heat recovery and oxygen get involved, another 30 to 45% seem possible. In summary, I see an energy reduction potential of 10 to 60% today without any hydrogen usage for conventional cold-air fuel-fired furnaces.

AL Circle: What challenges do you foresee in implementing decarbonisation measures within the aluminium industry?

Dr. Thomas Niehoff : From my perspective, in Germany/Europe, the energy costs are rising fast. The changes that every aluminium producer has to make happen relatively slowly. I can imagine issues with the timing of the energy supply situation and infrastructure. For instance, if you like to switch to electrical melting, you will need available power in the grid. If you want to fire green hydrogen, you will require a source to connect to. The availability of green energy and the energy switch of a furnace/plant need to be synchronized to happen smoothly. At this stage, I do not understand how this is done. We all need more transparency to see this happen and to act accordingly. Nobody wants to wait long for the hydrogen/energy just converted.

AL Circle: Are there any economic considerations or potential barriers that you believe may hinder the widespread adoption of decarbonisation technologies in the aluminium industry?

Dr. Thomas Niehoff : Yes, economics and safety are the most significant barriers. Aluminium produced with green energy must be able to sell and fulfil demands. Quality and price must fit to market it. Green energy handling, storage and usage must always be safe. Otherwise, it will not be accepted. Another potential barrier would be if a few companies gain multi-billion dollar profit margins and the consumer has to pay for it. The acceptance of this can be low. All has to be balanced.

AL Circle: What role do you think renewable energy sources could play in decarbonising the aluminium production process?

Dr. Thomas Niehoff : Renewable energy sources will be key enablers of climate-neutral primary and secondary aluminium production. Without renewable energy sources like wind, hydro and solar, there will not be enough climate-neutral energy around follow and understand. The more transparency, the better the commitment and motivation of all. A big incentive is that the aluminium industry is shown and opened a path to get there.

AL Circle: In your opinion, what are the most critical steps that policymakers can take to support and incentivise decarbonisation efforts within the aluminium industry?

Dr. Thomas Niehoff : Right now, I have the impression that required changes are only possible with state-funded money. This is not a good sign because we know this situation cannot last long. We need a scenario where the change to green energy and more sustainability pays for itself with its generated benefits (not tax savings). Policymakers and industry representatives must cooperate to find these pathways and make them good. This must be done so the consumer and taxpayer can follow and understand. The more transparency, the better the commitment and motivation of all. A big incentive is that the aluminium industry is shown and opened a path to get there.

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