The liquid metal mercury is the cathode (negative pole) in one of the three chlorine production technologies.
The phasing out of mercury technology in the Chlor-Alkali industry
Currently the European chlor-alkali sector is progressing towards a phase-out of mercury cell technology. The sector has for a long time proceeded on a voluntary basis towards a phase-out deadline of 2020. Meanwhile, however, under the Industrial Emissions Directive, the BAT conclusions (Best Available Technology) have become legally binding. The national authorities had to ‘reconsider permit conditions’ and ‘take into account the BAT conclusions', implying that four years after publication of these BAT conclusions, this means before 11 December 2017, mercury based production technology must be ceased.
Consequently, the European chlor-alkali producers using the mercury technology must convert or dismantle these production plants. Euro Chlor has created a special page within this website that monitors these operations and keeps you up-to-date with the latest available information.
It is also clear that Europe needs safe and cost-effective solutions for the permanent storage of elemental mercury which is no longer used in chlor-alkali mercury cells (‘excess mercury’). Euro Chlor wants these solutions to be environmentally sound and economically viable and to have sufficient capacity.
The chlor-alkali industry has a long history of safe handling and storage of liquid mercury and the experience is documented in several Guidance Documents in Euro Chlor’s technical library, such as the ‘Guidelines for the safe handling and temporary storage of mercury from chlor-alkali plants in shut-down or conversion’.
Key facts about the European chlor-alkali industry:
- Nearly 20 million tonnes of chlorine, caustic soda and hydrogen are produced each year.
- Chlorine and caustic soda are essential to economic and social welfare and are used in a wide variety of products e.g. plastics, medicine, disinfectants, clothing, building materials, etc.
- In 2015, the mercury technology accounted for 19.7% of EU production capacity, membrane production was 63.7%.
- The total amount of mercury still in use in chlor-alkali manufacturing is about 5700 tonnes (end 2016).
Ratification of the Minamata Convention on Mercury by the EU
The EU signed the Minamata Convention on Mercury in October 2013 and thereby committed to ensure its ratification and implementation across the Union. As a first step to achieve this, the Commission proposed on 2 February 2016 the following ratification package:
- proposal for a Regulation on Mercury repealing and replacing Regulation (EC) 1102/2008;
- proposal for a Council Decision concerning the conclusion on behalf of the EU of the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
The package amended current EU legislation by:
- repealing Regulation (EC) 1102/2008, while maintaining its substantive provisions that ban mercury exports and regulate waste mercury disposal;
- prohibiting within the EU any future new uses of mercury in products and industry, unless significant environmental and health benefits are demonstrated and there are no mercury-free alternatives;
- bringing certain additional adjustments to current EU law, necessary to allow the EU to ratify the Convention;
- simplifying certain EU law provisions on mercury.
Between February and December 2016, the proposal was discussed in the Parliament’s ENVI Committee and in the Council and the subsequent 2 rounds of trilogue discussions led to a compromise text that was adopted by the Parliament ENVI Committee on January 12, 2017.
It is foreseen to be voted during the Parliament’s plenary session of 1 March 2017. The Council will then be able to finalise approval of the measure (expected later in March), meaning that publication in the Official Journal and entry into force may occur before the summer of 2017.
Contact: Marleen Pauwels, mpa[at]cefic.be, tel. +32 2 676 72 47
Review of the Mercury Regulation; impact on temporary storage, permanent disposal and reporting.
EU Regulation (EC) 1102/2008 not only set out an export ban for metallic mercury, certain mercury compounds and mixtures, it also introduced some requirements for the safe storage of metallic mercury. It fully entered into force on March 15th 2011.
Download the EU Regulation EC 1102/2008 document (PDF)
In the February 2016 Commission proposal for the review of the Mercury Regulation, the substantive provisions banning mercury exports and regulating waste mercury disposal have been maintained. Important to know is that the EU Parliament and the Member States formulated a list of amendments in relation to the storage and disposal and some were agreed upon during the trilogue discussions. They are included in the chapter below.
Safe temporary storage and safe permanent disposal of mercury and mercury compounds
The safety of long-term mercury storage is regulated by existing EU waste legislation (Directives 2008/98/EC & 1999/31/EC and Decision 2003/33/EC) which ensures only storage sites with the necessary permits for the storage of hazardous waste can be used. In the case of liquid mercury, the permit shall also include requirements for regular visual inspections of the containers and the installation of appropriate vapour detection equipment to detect any leak.
Storage of liquid (metallic) mercury in sealed containers in deep salt mines was originally considered a very safe option for the disposal by hazardous waste experts and established storage company operators. This solution reduces the risk of accidental environmental exposure as the mercury does not need to be moved after it has been stored in a dedicated area (Read here the Euro Chlor March 2016 full position paper).
The latest version of the Mercury Regulation, however, only allows such storage on a temporary basis, for a maximum period of 5 years, with the possibility to extend it with 3 additional years through a delegated act. After that period, all liquid mercury should be converted into ‘mercury sulphide or a comparable chemical compound which is equally or more stable and equally or less soluble in water and that presents no greater environmental or health hazard than mercury sulfide’. The mercury sulphide or comparable chemical compound can then be permanently disposed of, respecting the general European hazardous waste rules and some additional provisions specified in the Mercury Regulation. E.g. mercury sulphide can be permanently stored in underground salt mines or hard rock formations; or in solidified form also in above-ground storages. More details will follow once the Regulation will be published.
Available stabilisation technology options
At this moment, there are four companies active in the conversion of mercury to mercury-sulphide. More information about the options is presented below. Information is taken from materials provided by the companies and should not be read as an endorsement of any one particular option and no ranking is implied.
BATREC in Wimmis, Switzerland
BATREC is under the management of SARP Industries within the Veolia Group
The installation consists of two parallel reactors and a filter-press and has a capacity of approx. 1000 tonnes/y. BATREC has two tonne containers available for the transport of the mercury waste from the electrolysis to their plant in Switzerland. For this transportation, special arrangements have to be agreed with the authorities.
The process works in a wet environment resulting in a mercury-sulphide cake with less than 5% water. A conversion rate of 99.999% of the mercury to mercury-sulphide is guaranteed.
The mercury sulphide is packed in plastic bags which then go into 200 liter drums. The mercury sulphide drums are stored in the salt mine of K+S in Herfa Neurode, Germany.
The process has been operational since 2016.
ECON is constructing a mobile unit which is able to convert approx. six tonnes of mercury per day (three shifts) to mercury sulphide. It is a dry process.
The installation is operated on the premises of the electrolysis plant by the operators of the electrolysis plant. The electrolysis plant has to arrange the environmental permit and has to take care of the required utilities and operators.
First pilot plant test where successful and first commercial operation is expected in Q1-2017.
Mayasa is considering the development of a commercial plant with an alternative mercury conversion/ stabilisation process.
In this process the mercury is converted into HgS, which is then converted to a polymer cement.
More information on the process can be found on the Mayasa website.
REMONDIS QR in Dorsten, Germany
The installation has a capacity of approx. 500 tonnes/year. The liquid mercury is converted in a dry process to mercury sulphide.The mercury-sulphide is packed in drums and disposed of in the salt mine of K+S in Herfa Neurode, Germany.
The process has been operational since 2014.
Chlor-alkali metallic mercury reporting to the Commission
According to the 2008 Regulation, the quantities of metallic mercury on sites have to be reported yearly to the Commission and the Competent Authorities. Euro Chlor has volunteered to gather the data from the chlor-alkali sites of the Euro Chlor member companies in order to facilitate reporting to the Commission.
The 2016 Mercury Regulation review proposal provides some more details on the reporting and on certificates and record keeping, ensuring traceability.
Euro Chlor yearly provides, on behalf of all member companies utilising mercury cell technology, the following data:
- best estimate of total amount of mercury still in use in the chlor-alkali cells
- total amount of metallic mercury stored in the facility.
Download the Total amount of metallic mercury on site 2015 document (PDF).
The data are publicly available on ec.europa.eu.
Read more about the safe storage of excess mercury
Q & A on Safe Permanent Storage of Mercury (March 2016 - PDF)
See Mercury emissions documentations below.
Read more about the reduction of global mercury emissions and use in the chlor-alkali industry
UNEP Global Mercury Programme - The Chlor-Alkali Sector Partnership (PDF)
Mercury emissions - Individual plant data
In accordance with the Euro Chlor commitment for openness and transparency on progress in the sustainability programme, you will find here the individual plant data for mercury emissions in the European chlor-alkali sector.
Trend of the mercury emissions (2015 - PDF)
Euro Chlor video production on responsible handling of mercury
Euro Chlor has produced a video on the handling of mercury in the chlor-alkali industry in a responsible way. While respecting the EU regulation saying to phase-out mercury by the end of 2017, the European chlor-alkali producers are actively engaged in the application of best practices when handling mercury during normal operation and during conversion to other technology. View the Euro Chlor video on responsible mercury handling.