Carbon Capture, Solar Fuels, Fossil Bubble

July 31, 2018 |

In Spain, BIOCON-CO2, a new €7 million EU Horizon 2020-funded research project, has recently kicked-off with intentions of supporting EU leadership in carbon dioxide (CO2) re-use technologies. BIOCON-CO2 aims to re-use excess CO2 produced from the iron, steel, cement and electric power industries to create value-added chemicals and plastics. This will be achieved by developing a versatile range of conversion techniques using low-energy biological systems such as anaerobic microorganisms, aerobic microorganisms and enzymes to produce key chemical products including industrial acids and alcohols.

By capturing and using excess CO2 to produce commercially viable chemicals and plastics, the research not only aims to contribute to the reduction of EU dependency on fossil fuel resources, but also improve the energy efficiency of the chemical industry and provide support for EU leadership in CO2 re-use technologies. In this way, tackling the CO2 challenge provides possibilities for encouraging innovation and a more sustainable circular economy.

Technical coordinator Daniel Caudepón from LEITAT (Spain), which leads BIOCON-CO2, explained at the project kick-off meeting in Ghent (Belgium) in January 2018: “This is a very important and timely project, as solutions are needed to tackle the challenge of CO2 emissions within the iron and steel industries on a global scale. The combined expertise of leading researchers, scientific experts and industry partners from across Europe, as well as two industry partners from Chile and Israel, will allow BIOCON-CO2 to lead by example and achieve the project’s ambitious goal of utilizing CO2 as a commodity, in a way that can benefit both Europe’s economy and environment.”

Solar Fuels could become competitive in the 2030s

It’s good news that re-use projects are gaining traction in the EU, because researchers from  Universiteit van Amsterdam report that the industrial synthesis of renewable hydrogen, syngas, methanol and diesel could become competitive with respect to their fossil counterparts within the next two decades. This follows from a techno-economic analysis by researchers from the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) research priority area Sustainable Chemistry and TNO. 

Solar energy driven processes with H2O and CO2 as basic feedstocks can produce ‘solar fuels’, replacing their fossil-based counterparts. They can also provide fundamental ‘green’ building blocks for the chemical industry.

Remko Detz, Joost Reek and Bob van der Zwaan analyzed multiple technologies required to produce renewable hydrogen, syngas, methanol, and diesel. Following an optimistic scenario the three researchers conclude that all four renewable fuels can out-compete their fossil-based counterparts between 2025 and 2050.

For hydrogen production through electrolysis and diesel production by Fischer–Tropsch synthesis, even a more conservative scenario may result in break-even costs before 2040. Both processes use solid oxide electrolysis, which according to the researchers will profit from rapid cost reductions and a high efficiency. First author Remko Detz: ‘We consider solid oxide electrolysis an early winner. But to achieve its potential, current systems with a typical size of 150 kW must be scaled up to the MW level.’

Four common fuels

The study focused on four common fuels – hydrogen, syngas, methanol, and diesel – because these can be generated relatively easily through renewable energy pathways. In total, seven renewable fuels production routes were studied – four for hydrogen and one for each of the other three fuels. These show high technology readiness levels, or – in particular in the case of novel artificial photosynthesis – hold the promise for straightforward renewable fuel production.

According to Detz, ‘novel artificial photosynthesis approaches should definitely be pursued, since their novelty implies that they could learn rapidly and thereby yield fast cost reductions.’ As an example, he mentions the manufacturing of a fully integrated conversion device in which light harvesting, charge separation, and catalysis produce the desired renewable fuel in a single step. This has the potential to substantially reduce investment costs, which can be deduced from analogous integrated systems such as PV cells producing electricity.

Carbon Clean Solutions to conduct solvent testing at University of Kentucky advanced carbon capture pilot

The advent of more re-uses for CO2 means more emphasis on carbon capture — some good news on that front is that in Kentucky, Carbon Clean Solutions will test its carbon capture solvent at University of Kentucky (UK)’s Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER) 0.7MW pilot system installed at Kentucky Utilities’ E.W. Brown Generating Station in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. This follows the US Department of Energy’s decision to award UK CAER with a research grant worth $940,000, to advance its world-renowned carbon dioxide (CO2) capture research and development. This test will be CCSL’s largest solvent test in the US to date.

CCSL will work with UK CAER’s project team – including LG&E and Kentucky Utilities, and Koch Modular Process Systems, among others –to conduct a pre-feasibility engineering study for an advanced CO2 capture system. If approved by the US Department of Energy, UK CAER and its partners will proceed to design and build a commercial scale 10 MW CO2 capture system integrated with an existing coal-fired power station.

Low-carbon energy transition requires more renewables than previously thought

We’re delighted to see the advances in carbon capture because, among other reasons, a study recently published in Nature Energy by Lewis King and Jeroen van den Bergh of the Institute of Science and Environmental Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) found that the transition to a low-carbon energy society will require more renewable energy sources than previously thought if current levels of energy consumption per capita and lifestyles are to be maintained. 

Following the Paris Agreement, several global energy transition scenarios have been presented. While these tend to be analyzed in terms of gross energy, the authors of the study consider the need to calculate energy requirements by distinguishing between gross (total energy yielded) and net energy (gross energy minus the energy used to produce it). Relevant in this context is the notion of ‘Energy Return on Investment’ (EROI), which represents the amount of useful energy yielded for each unit of energy input in the process of obtaining that energy. The lower an energy source’s EROI, the more energy input is required to produce a given energy output, resulting in less net energy available for consumption. According to researchers, coal and hydroelectricity have high EROIs, while nuclear energy, oil and gas have medium EROIs, and solar and wind power are characterized by medium to low EROIs.

“To maintain net energy per capita at current levels, renewable energy sources would have to grow at a rate two to three times that of current projections”, states Lewis King. The results further indicate a prioritization in phasing out fossil fuels, namely first coal, then oil and finally gas. This can be achieved by implementing a carbon price, which would discourage coal use more than oil, and oil more than gas.

Methodology to plan the optimal location of biomass plants

Help on efficiency may be on the way, though, as researchers from Universidad Politécnica de Madrid suggest via an innovative model to find the optimal location for biomass plants and that is respectful to the environment and ensuring long-term sustainability.

The selection of the location of a biomass plant is a critical issue precisely because of the potential for low EROI — that is, because the organic material is geographically dispersed. Two researchers from the School of Industrial Design and Engineering at UPM have developed a methodology to determine the optimal location of biomass plants. After its application in a case study, researchers highlight that numerous factors influence the selection of an optimal location for this type of industry, in addition, the decision making can be a complex process without a suitable tool.

The methodology proposed by Dr. Jin Su Jeong, from the research program Juan de la Cierva, and Dr. Álvaro Ramírez Gómez, a professor at UPM, also applied the model of Fuzzy Decision Making Trial and Evaluation Laboratory (DEMATEL) to identify and prioritize the factors that influence the decision making of the problem.

This methodology was used to establish the most suitable location in terms of long-term sustainability of a biomass plant in the region of Valle del Ambroz in Cáceres (Extremadura). The criteria used in this study are divided into three categories: environmental criteria (vegetation cover, agricultural area, ecological conditions and hydrology), geophysical criteria (geomorphology, orientation, geology and soil and visibility) and socio-economic criteria (transport cost, potential demand, economic area and site access).

Researchers said, “after applying this methodology, results shown that from all the surface of the region of the study, just a 9% of the area met the requirements needed for a sustainable location of a biomass plant. This analysis also suggests that the most influential criteria for decision making are: vegetal cover, agricultural area, transport cost and potential demand”.

‘Carbon bubble’ coming that could wipe trillions from the global economy – study

The net result of all the carbon activity? New research suggests that the momentum behind technological change in the global power and transportation sectors has the potential to leave vast reserves of fossil fuels as “stranded assets”: abruptly shifting from high to low value sometime before 2035.

Such a sharp slump in fossil fuel price could cause a huge “carbon bubble” built on long-term investments to burst. According to the study, the equivalent of between one and four trillion US dollars could be wiped off the global economy in fossil fuel assets alone. A loss of US$0.25 trillion triggered the crash of 2008 by comparison.

Yikes.

Publishing their findings in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers from Cambridge University (UK), Radboud University (NL), the Open University (UK), Macau University, and Cambridge Econometrics, argue that there will be clear economic winners and losers as a consequence.

Winners?

Japan, China and many EU nations currently rely on high-cost fossil fuel imports to meet energy needs. They could see national expenditure fall and – with the right investment in low-carbon technologies – a boost to Gross Domestic Product as well as increased employment in sustainable industries.

Losers?

Major carbon exporters with relatively high production costs, such as Canada, the United States and Russia, would see domestic fossil fuel industries collapse. Researchers warn that losses will only be exacerbated if incumbent governments continue to neglect renewable energy in favor of carbon-intensive economies.

The study repeatedly ran simulations to gauge the outcomes of numerous combinations of global economic and environmental change. It is the first time that the evolution of low-carbon technologies has been mapped from historical data and incorporated into ‘integrated assessment modeling’.

Prof Jorge Viñuales, study co-author from Cambridge University and founder of C-EENRG, said: “Our analysis suggests that, contrary to investor expectations, the stranding of fossil fuels assets may happen even without new climate policies. This suggests a carbon bubble is forming and it is likely to burst.”

“Individual nations cannot avoid the situation by ignoring the Paris Agreement or burying their heads in coal and tar sands,” he said. “For too long, global climate policy has been seen as a prisoner’s dilemma game, where some nations can do nothing and get a ‘free ride’ on the efforts of others. Our results show this is no longer the case.”

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