A CO₂ emission-free industry… How can it be done?

18 March 2019 • 5 min reading time

In the Netherlands, industry is responsible for 30% of all CO₂ emissions: a substantial proportion. The country has set itself ambitious climate targets. The challenge is: how can we attain a CO₂-neutral industry as quickly as possible ? We put ten questions to Jaap Vente and Sigrid Bollwerk, ECN part of TNO specialists in this field.

Read more about the 4 innovative ways TNO has to make our industry CO2-neutral

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RWhat options does Dutch industry currently have to reduce its CO₂ emissions?

“There are quite a few options, but the technologies involved are at very different stages of applicability. For those that are practicable in the short term, we and our partners are running regular pilots and demonstration projects. This kind of collaboration is essential to really make a difference. But there are also quite a few solutions that are still in the development stage, and so can only be applied in the medium or long term,” emphasizes Jaap Vente. “As ECN part of TNO we are researching into the whole field of solution possibilities. It’s an illusion to think that one single solution will work for the whole of industry. We will really have to do everything if we are to succeed.”

Okay, so we have to pull out all the stops. But… isn’t electrification the most logical route?

“That’s already being implemented on a large scale. But in the short term, we aren’t going to make it with electricity alone. If private individuals start heating their houses with electricity and driving electric cars, then demand for sustainable electricity will explode. It will be a while before demand and supply are in balance and before industry can run solely on sustainable electricity,” warns Vente. “So other measures are also needed, such as more efficient processes, the smarter use of heat, using biomass, and the circular use of materials. CO₂ will also have to be captured.”

Capturing CO₂ and keeping it underground? Isn’t that more of an interim solution?

“Yes, it is,” agrees Sigrid Bollwerk. “Capturing and storing CO₂ is something we should only do if there really is no alternative for fossil fuel. In a pilot project in Sweden, we got some good results with capturing CO₂ from a steel factory, and we will now use part of that CO₂ to make methanol for the shipping industry. I think this technology can make a real difference, but on the other hand, the CO₂ emissions of the steel sector are so large that for the time being we can’t avoid the need for underground storage .”

What about hydrogen? Is this an interesting sustainable fuel for industry?

“Very interesting, and perhaps even more so as a raw material than as a fuel. At VoltaChem we are working with businesses, universities and other knowledge institutes to find ways to convert hydrogen into fuels and chemicals. But to produce hydrogen in a CO₂-neutral way, you need to do the electrolysis with sustainably-generated electricity, and that will only be available in the longer term. Until then we can use ‘blue’ hydrogen, for which the CO₂ emissions are captured and stored – but of course, what we want is an entirely sustainable solution. That’s why we’re doing everything we can to make sure that green hydrogen technology will soon be a serious option, including for industry.”

What else is needed, besides a larger supply of sustainable electricity, to pave the way for green hydrogen?

“To start with, we need to improve electrolysis technology. Today’s equipment doesn’t like being switched off and on again, and clearly, that’s what happens when you’re using solar and wind energy. The production costs will have to come way down, and production yields will have to rise. We’re working with other partners on that, too, including in our Faraday laboratory.”

Any other tips for quick wins in other areas?

“Even better: I’ve got a quick win-win-win for you,” laughs Bollwerk. “Today you often see that industrial businesses cool their waste heat using surface water or even electrical coolers. But if you use a heat pump to bring this warmth to a higher temperature, you can use it for your own production processes. Take the paper industry, for instance: 150°C is often enough for its production purposes, and that’s a temperature that can easily be achieved using waste heat and a heat pump . The result: lower CO₂ emissions, tidy savings on your energy bills, and you’ve solved the problems associated with discharges into surface water. Win-win-win!”

Refineries and chemical companies work with temperatures up to around 1000°C. How can temperatures this high be achieved without using fossil fuels?

“For those sorts of high-temperature processes, you could use sustainable electricity, if there was enough supply. And in VoltaChem we’re also looking into how you can achieve direct electrochemical conversion – using electricity to produce chemicals directly. That’s a long-term project, admittedly,” adds Vente. “Putting that kind of technology in place means making drastic changes to your primary process.”

What should every industrial company be doing tomorrow?

“It’s worth examining all your current production processes and implementing existing efficiency improvement measures,” says Bollwerk. “You save on energy, you save on raw materials, and you reduce your CO₂ emissions. According to the International Energy Agency, such efficiency improvement measures could allow industry to reduce its energy requirements by over 40% by 2040.”

Is this always custom work?

“Absolutely. The best solution will always depend on the industry and on the individual company,” emphasizes Vente. “Exactly what kind of production processes are you running? Where is your company located? And who are your neighbours? That’s important, too – you might be able to share a heat pump. And what one company regards as its industrial waste, nearby businesses might be able to use as a possible raw material. We call this industrial symbiosis, and during the Smart Delta Resources project in Zeeland we had some very promising results in that area.”

What is the next logical step in making Dutch industry CO₂-neutral?

“The main thing in reaching our climate goals is that each company identifies its own best solutions or solution pathways. A comprehensive energy scan is often a good start, because it includes the broader context. And companies shouldn’t wait too long before actually investing in energy-saving measures; if you can find a smart way to drastically reduce your CO₂ emissions, there’s a good chance this will also improve your competitive position,” says Vente. “Sustainability is getting more and more interesting from an economic perspective.”

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