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Report Targets Carbon Dioxide As A Resource

Sept. 20, 2019
Several hurdles still exist to developing a carbon reuse economy


VTT, Finland’s Espoo-based technical research center, has published a paper on how carbon dioxide can be turned into a resource with a favorable impact on climate.

The report, “The carbon reuse economy – Transforming CO2 from a pollutant into a resource” covers topics such as drivers of change, product options in the carbon reuse economy, pathways to a carbon reuse economy, and how to overcome barriers to change.

“It can be envisioned that, in the future, there will be more low-carbon electricity and almost unlimited amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide available. The biggest barrier to using carbon dioxide is mainly the high production costs related to the supply of low-carbon energy in a world used to low-cost oil. Political decisionmakers would now need to make bold decisions relating to low-carbon energy in any case,” says Antii Arasto, VTT technology manager and one of the report’s authors.

The paper identifies three main drivers for a carbon reuse economy. The first relates to carbon reuse’s potential to displace fossil resources for energy, fuels, chemicals and materials production.

The second is the need to reduce CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, for example, by expanding the regional raw material resource bases and secure energy supply (i.e., the energy needed to sustain societal activities).

Third, is the potential for new business based on the sustainable supply of carbon for value-added products.
The report discusses several possible process pathways to produce fuels from CO2 and low-carbon hydrogen. For example, modular decentralized production of hydrocarbon fuels from CO2 and hydrogen Fischer-Tropsch (FT) synthesis also can be applied to captured CO2 and electrolytic hydrogen as feedstocks.

“However, FT has traditionally required plants with large production volumes to be profitable. A new concept based on a modular production unit using micro-reactor technology and efficient solid catalysts enables profitable production of hydrocarbons suitable for transportation fuels on a smaller scale,” the authors note.

Such a unit can be located next to industrial CO2 emission sources and production sites with surplus hydrogen. These decentralized units can produce hydrocarbons for drop-in transportation fuels (electrofuels) in oil refineries, they say.

VTT already has demonstrated this approach with its sea-container-based modular pilot plant that moves from site to site to take advantage of available CO2 streams (See, “Pilot Bolsters ‘Green’ Hydrocarbon Route”).

However, there are still numerous hurdles; the authors highlight seven of the most important, along with recommendations to tackle them. One is the cost of low-carbon energy, which largely determines the cost of carbon capture and utilization (CCU) products.

“Previous assessments have shown that CCU concepts become feasible after low-carbon electricity becomes continuously available at a cost below €20–30/MWh ($22–33/MWh),” the authors state. The price of low-carbon electricity is expected to decrease due to increasing investments and governmental actions and meet the target level by 2030.

Another is the tendency to transform industrial and energy systems towards more distributed production. This means small distributed point sources emit CO2, which increases the costs of CCU plants, for example in terms of unit costs of captured CO2. To overcome this, the authors suggest utilizing high shares of significant industrial point sources and direct air capture.

Then there are sustainability concerns. Lifecycle assessment methodologies are still being established for different applications of carbon reuse. So, questions such as whether fossil CO2 could be used as raw material alongside biogenic and atmospheric CO2 are only now being debated. Reaching consensus on sustainable practices will take time and possibly delay technology scale-up. The authors suggest standardized lifecycle assessment methodologies driven by global intergovernmental organizations could resolve the problem.

The authors also note that progress depends on industrial renewal. “Decarbonization of the industrial and transport sectors will be an enormous task and will take decades to accomplish,” they declare. For example, fossil raw materials are not only used for producing energy and fuels but also as raw materials in chemical and steel industries. A total renewal of heavy industry and transport is needed to meet climate change mitigation targets.

The authors conclude that the most important actions to take are related to business and the political environment: “Commercialization of the carbon reuse economy requires low carbon energy investments and policies to promote these investments. Moreover, the commercialization of lower-value products can be accelerated by legislative actions.”

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can email him at [email protected].

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