Neste invests in Sunfire, CO2, water to fuels and Power-to-X solutions

March 11, 2020 |

From Finland and Germany comes news that Neste has acquired a minority stake in the German cleantech company Sunfire GmbH

The key technology in the Power-to-X platform is electrolysis. It enables the production of emission-free renewable hydrogen and conversion of CO2 into fuels, chemicals and materials. Thus it transforms a problem into a solution. 

Sunfire is a leading developer of high-temperature electrolysis technology. The company’s patented technology allows the production of renewable hydrogen as well as the direct conversion of water and CO2 into raw material for petrochemical products.

In addition to Neste’s equity investment in Sunfire, both companies will work together to demonstrate the production of renewable hydrogen at Neste’s refinery with Sunfire’s high-temperature electrolyzer. The demonstration is an important milestone in the commercialization of Sunfire’s technology and supports Neste in developing new sustainable solutions for Neste’s current business and future growth.

CO2 and hydrogen can be brought together in a synthesis process, giving synthetic methanol as a result. Methanol can be further processed into for example synthetic, emission free transportation fuels.

The Power-to-X backstory

There’s quite a bit of buzz in the EU over Power-to-X, or PtX, or P2X — the use of excess power to generate storable energy (such as liquid fuels) or other useful products or application — for example, using power to split water and combine hydrogen with CO2 to make materials or foods.

In December, we reported that Finnair, Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology LUT, and a group of other companies have started a feasibility study for a synthetic fuels pilot production plant. The pilot plant would use CO2 from Finnsementti cement facility in Lappeenranta and the excess hydrogen from Kemira’s production as main raw materials. The intended industrial scale pilot facility is based on power-to-x technology, and the target is to produce carbon neutral fuels for transportation. The pilot plant would be located in Joutseno, Eastern Finland.

In March, we reported that FuelCellWorks reported that GRTgaz successfully injected hydrogen into its gas network using its power-to-gas demonstrator named Jupiter 1000. Jupiter 1000 is the first industrial-scale power-to-gas facility that is connected to the French gas transmission network. This demonstrator allows for the exploitation of surplus renewable electricity. The coming weeks will be dedicated to optimizing the operation of the entire production chain and compression-injection before starting the performance tests and the technical-economic optimization analysis of the installation. Jupiter 1000 is supported by the South Region, the ADEME (investments for the future program) and the European Union. 

One of the more alluring aspects of this discussion is the use of excess renewable power at peak times (e.g. when the sun shines) to create a liquid fuel that stores easily and cheaply until wintertime (when the sun shines less, if at all). And, consider the potential to make hydrogen for fuel cells — or, in Nissan’s ethanol fuel cell, using a liquid storable to power an electric motor. No heavy battery, no slow recharge, no battery end of life, no kidding.

In the end, that’s what the entire discussion about vehicles using petroleum, biofuels, electricity, hybrids, CNG, LNG, hydrogen, fuel-cell, and possibly the enlightening power of song is all about: what’s the optimal energy storage system?

There’s little to no dissension about the appeal of electric motors, or the efficiency of using electricity to power mobility. The consternation has more to do with the supply of that energy — in mobile applications, that means energy storage. If you’ve felt occasionally frustrated about the challenges of keeping an iPhone charged when on the road, consider the problem of keeping a piece of equipment charged up that weighs 9,137 times more.

That’s of course the ratio for a mid-size car. For a Boeing 787-8, this is an object weighing 1.3 million times more, and you also have to throw it 35,000 feet into the air and keep it there for up to 13 hours at a time. It’s not a job for the Energizer bunny, it’s not trivial science.

And when the price is cheap we bicker about the sustainability, and when the sustainability is right we bicker about the price. It is our nature to be dissatisfied, and to blame government for all our problems.

The Sunfire backstory

Sunfire first arrived on our radar in 2015. We reported that In Germany, Audi has taken another big step in the development of new, CO2 neutral fuels: A pilot plant in Dresden has started production of the synthetic fuel Audi e diesel.

After a commissioning phase of just four months, the research facility in Dresden started producing its first batches of high‑quality diesel fuel. Sunfire was Audi’s project partner and the plant operator. It uses green power to produce a liquid fuel. The only raw materials needed are water and carbon dioxide. The CO2 used was supplied by a biogas facility. In addition, initially a portion of the CO2 needed is extracted from the ambient air by means of direct air capturing, a technology of Audi’s Zurich‑based partner Climeworks.

It’s evolved, the Sunfire story, and all the buzz is about “power to x”. Sunfire develops and produces high-temperature electrolysers and high-temperature fuel cells based on solid oxide cell technology. High-temperature electrolysis generates valuable hydrogen from steam powered by renewable electricity. The use of steam instead of liquid water for electrolysis significantly increases the efficiency of the process and is specifically well suited for industrial application where process heat is available. 

This week, we reported that the EU Horizon 2020-funded MULTIPLHY Project under development at Neste’s Rotterdam refinery will go ahead with CEA, Neste, Paul Wurth, Engie and Sunfire as partners. Partners will build a 2.6 MW high temperature electrolyser at the facility to produce green hydrogen that will in turn be used to produce biofuels. Neste recently announced EUR5 million in investment in Sunfire. The project has received EUR9.6 million in EU research grant funding.

Check out this Multi-Slide Guide

Power-to-liquids: The Digest’s 2018 Multi-Slide Guide to Solid Oxide Fuel Cell technology

Reaction from the stakeholders

“Over the past decade, Neste has transformed itself from a regional oil refining company into a global leader in renewable and circular solutions through breakthrough innovation. As part of Neste’s growth strategy, we continue to focus on innovation with the aim to develop the existing businesses and build new growth business platforms. One of these fields of innovation is Power-to-X,” said Neste’s President and CEO Peter Vanacker. “Sunfire’s highly efficient technology and world-class expertise in Power-to-X, together with our proven track record in commercializing new sustainable technologies, provides an excellent basis for further development of the Power-to-X solutions.”

“Having the world’s number one provider of renewable fuels at our side will strengthen our position as a leading supplier of Power-to-X solutions for green synthetic fuel and hydrogen production. The partnership with Neste is in line with our strategy to engage with the best companies in order to supply renewable energy to industrial value chains. Neste will provide Sunfire with excellent insight into renewable fuel markets and deep expertise in engineering, procurement, and construction,“ says Nils Aldag, Managing Director at Sunfire.

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