Roadmap Aims to Catalyze Better Energy Efficiency

International initiative foresees catalytic processes playing a key role in cutting consumption and emissions

By Sean Ottewell, Editor at Large

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It also urges the chemical industry to identify top catalyst/process-related opportunities and accelerate R&D and capital investments that improve energy efficiency. The industry also should facilitate R&D on game-changers with partners to lower barriers and operating costs, and promote global and regional co-operation on reducing energy and emissions via industry associations.

In addition, the roadmap calls upon academia and research organizations to undertake or stimulate university and national laboratory research on large-volume/high-energy-use processes, and to take action with industry leaders to identify top prospects for reducing technical barriers.

Finally, it points to the role financial institutions should play — urging such institutions to work together with the chemical industry to better understand changes in funding requirements of a low-carbon chemical sector and the funding opportunities of such a transition.

"Concerted, long-term action of all stakeholders is critical to realizing the vision and impacts described in this roadmap. Governments can help create a favorable environment by creating a long-term policy framework that encourages investments in R&D," notes Beckmann.

"They can also help by publicizing the report and talking about it: showing that there is real engagement at the government level. This is one of the reasons for our engagement with policymakers — and why the roadmap itself is only 60 pages long. The deep technical detail used to create it is contained in ten separate annexes," adds Mills.

Among large-volume chemicals, four — olefins, ammonia, BTX aromatics (benzene, toluene, xylenes) and methanol — represent about 80% of energy demand. The roadmap specifically targets these four because all are or can be produced through catalytic processes (Figure 1).

The roadmap outlines how incremental improvements such as better heat integration and catalyst tweaks can reduce energy demand of the four and then moves on to the benefits of adopting BPTs such as better catalysts and separation technologies.

"The biggest opportunities are obviously new builds; this means primarily the Gulf Coast in the U.S., driven by shale oil and gas developments, the Gulf region, and Asia — especially China. In each case, we can tackle two things in parallel: we can drive efficiency, and we can help with decisions over BPTs. One of the most obvious ones mentioned in the report is ammonia. If more gas and less coal was used as a feedstock it would be very beneficial from an emissions point of view. For countries with large coal reserves, of course, the arguments are not straightforward — which is why interactions with intergovernmental bodies such as the IEA is helpful in discussing all the alternatives that they could use," explains Mills.

The roadmap then turns to the game-changers, defined as processes that essentially re-invent the way something is done. Again particularly for the benefit of policymakers, it outlines the role of catalysis in the Haber-Bosch ammonia process. Then it moves on to catalysts' more recent involvement in new processes to improve hydrogen generation for steam methane reformers, upgrade bio-oils and light alkanes, synthesize aromatics from lignin and directly synthesize hydrogen peroxide from hydrogen and oxygen.

Noting there are many such "dream reactions" and they will need a long time to develop fully, the roadmap says two potential game-changers warrant specific mention: use of hydrogen from renewable energy sources to produce ammonia and methanol, and use of biomass as feedstock.

Hydrogen generation is one of the largest energy-consuming steps in the production of ammonia and methanol. Using hydrogen from renewable energy sources potentially could reduce the fossil-fuel use and GHG footprint of these processes significantly. Catalysis could enable efficient hydrogen generation, particularly via techniques such as photocatalysis or photovoltaic-assisted water electrolysis.

According to the roadmap, this option warrants further investigation along three lines: production of hydrogen from electrolytic water cleavage using electricity from renewable sources; ammonia synthesis from hydrogen and nitrogen, omitting steam reforming or water-gas shift from gas or coal; and methanol synthesis from hydrogen with either coal or carbon dioxide as the carbon source.

"Breakthroughs will be required for the generation of hydrogen at significantly lower energy demand and for providing significant excess hydrogen from renewable energy sources for this game-changer to become a realistic option in the future," notes the roadmap.

Like the hydrogen game-changer, wide use of bio-based routes for large-scale chemicals production depends upon significant improvement in overall energy consumption and cost. In addition, there's growing concern about the amount of arable land required for a high-volume bio-based chemical feedstock infrastructure, and potential competition with food production. Additional research clearly is needed, says the roadmap.

The long-term nature of the work to be carried forward warrants establishing high-level milestones (Figure 2), while the substantial technical hurdles and high investment costs (particularly for areas with a high return-on-investment threshhold) create a need for collective effort on the part of all stakeholders including academia, research institutes and industrial partners. Governments must play an enabling role by establishing policies to encourage the necessary long-term collaborations and investments, stresses the roadmap.

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