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Making valuable products from CO2 with sustainable energy

05 Apr 2016

One of the grand challenges for Europe in the next decades is to guarantee a sustainable supply of energy that is reliable and affordable. There is also great potential in energy carriers and other materials from CO2, with many challenges to overcome.
The conversion of CO2 into sustainable products is a globally trending topic

TNO has evaluated the techno-economic aspects of these technologies together with the University of Twente and will continue its development within the VoltaChem program, involving several partners. “Europe’s chemical industry needs this,” says TNO’s Erin Schols.
The conversion of CO2 into sustainable products is a globally trending research topic. Rather than bury the excess carbon dioxide, scientists everywhere are looking into ways to transform the CO2 molecule into something more valuable. This is a very complex and costly process as “the CO2 molecule is very stable,” says project leader Erin Schols. “It does not want to be anything else. To get it to become something else, you need a lot of energy and highly selective catalysts.”

Promising alternatives to convert CO2

This is an effective explanation of the challenges that scientist face. The necessary energy cannot be derived from fossil fuel, because that would just produce more of the highly stable CO2 molecules the world is so desperate to get rid of. However, there are promising alternatives using sustainable energy. Carbon Recycling International, a company in Iceland, uses geothermal energy to convert CO2 into methanol. In the US, scientists at Liquid Light succeeded in producing ethylene glycol and other higher hydrocarbons electrochemically. In Germany, the end product of focus is methane. “These are notable achievements, but no one has managed yet to make it as affordable as the conventional processes and bring the technology to a large market,” says Schols, who is involved in a number of CO2-related projects. Also adding to the costs is the fact that metal electro-catalysts usually produce multiple products from CO2. It is expensive to have the desired product separated and purified before it can be used.

Market focused evaluation of academic results

Electrochemical systems for the conversion of CO2 are still mostly developed in academia, without much connection with actual commercial processes. Within the NanoNextNL program, TNO partnered with the group of Guido Mul at the University of Twente to bring a market perspective to the group’s work. Incorporating the most recent experimental developments, TNO was able to perform a detailed techno-economic assessment and show clear breakeven points that the group’s system would have to achieve to become commercially feasible. This will be brought further in the VoltaChem program as an important avenue for development, involving Dutch universities and research institutes 11and giving access to the results to interested companies.

Europe will also come up with a solution

Schols: “Europe needs a way to convert CO2 with cheap electricity. The US has cheap shale gas, Asia has cheap labour. It looks like CO2 is going to be expensive to emit in the near future. The European chemical industry needs a competitive edge and the production of products from CO2 using cheap sustainable electricity could be a major part of the solution.”
Schols is convinced a way will be found to make this work. “We are only at the start of this process. We will see what works first with high value specialties and combinations with bio-based chemicals. Things will change and it will happen. I believe that using cheap and sustainable electricity to convert CO2 will become a reality.”

Do you want to be a partner? Get in touch with Erin Schols.

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Dr. Erin Schols

  • CO2 utilization
  • carbon dioxide
  • energy storage
  • solar air-conditioning
  • airco
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