What if you could capture CO2 before it reaches the atmosphere? That would significantly drive down emissions. And humankind would stand a good chance at reaching the EU’s goal of climate neutrality by 2050. Chemical engineer Juliana MonDEF_teiro and her colleagues at TNO are hard at work turning this dream into reality. Next up? Decarbonising the shipping sector. One has to admit she is ambitious. And that is exactly why Juliana has won the TNO Young Excellent Researcher Award 2020. Time for an in-depth conversation.
Juliana, tell us a little about yourself and your research.
I’m a chemical engineer, originally from Brazil, but I have lived in Europe since 2010. That year I moved to Norway for my PhD. In 2016 I was hired as a scientist at TNO. My expertise is in gas treatment. Together with my colleagues we’ve developed methods to catch CO2 from industrial emissions before it reaches the atmosphere.
Sounds intriguing. How does that work?
We all know that the a large source of CO2 emissions is from burning fossil fuels. For electricity, heat, and transportation, but also for various industries. For power generation we are now trying to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power. This green electricity can be used to in electrical cars. But for some industries, for example the cement industries, it’s not possible to decarbonise entirely.
Cement is made from naturally occurring rocks, which in the process of being transformed into cement are heated and release CO2. Even for power, we can’t always count on enough sun and wind to power an entire region. That’s why fossil fuels will remain a source of energy, at least for the time being, to avoid power outages.
My team and I try to come up with a solution for the CO2 emitted from those sources. More specifically, we develop chemical plants and solvents to separate, or capture, CO2 from other gases. This piece of chemical engineering can be installed in factories or power plants to capture up to 99+ percent of CO2 emissions before they reach the atmosphere. It’s possible to reuse a small part of the captured CO2 in greenhouses, or as feedstock for chemicals and fuels. The rest we store underground. We believe that this method, if widely applied, will contribute significantly to bringing down emissions.
Wow! So what is TNO’s role in this?
Well, I’d like to share a personal story to illustrate this. Back in Brazil, towards the end of my undergraduate studies, I was at a loss. I had no idea where to go next. Then I saw Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. It inspired me to study something that would help counter global warming. After my master’s in Rio de Janeiro I’ve landed a PhD position in the group of professor Hallvard Svendsen at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).
Hallvard was one of the leading experts in the CO2 capture field. Hallvard was coordinating an international project on development of novel solvents for CO2 capture, and TNO was one of the partners. I really liked the idea of working on research, but at the same time being much closer to the industry than I was at the University. And that’s exactly what TNO does: we work with the industry to deliver impact. That was one of the reasons for me joining TNO in 2016.
My first project was with the Rijnmond Industrial Waste Processing Company (AVR). They are a waste-to-energy company, meaning that they incinerate waste to generate power and heat. We helped AVR to evaluate different options of CO2 capture technology, and even operated a miniature version of a plant to capture CO2 from AVR’s stack gas in Duiven. We call it “the miniplant”.
Based on the project results, AVR decided to build a large scale system. It became the first company in the world to realise a plant that captures CO2 emissions on a large scale (12,000 kilos per hour) from gases generated in waste incinerators. I love research and development, but I love it even more when they are applied to the real world. TNO was able to achieve big things in my field.
Cool, but that was 2016. What has happened since then?
We keep on working closely with AVR, having weekly meetings to look together at the plant performance. They send solvent samples for us to analyse at TNO. We learn from their experience, and we transfer this knowledge to other companies installing CO2 capture plants. At the same time, they benefit from our expertise.
When I joined TNO, there was already a wealth of knowledge and experience in the team I could build upon. Since 2016, we’ve upgraded the miniplant at lot. We’ve started using it so often that in 2020 we decided to build a second miniplant. We are currently using this second miniplant to support the development of an even better solvent. CO2 capture solvents work on a cyclic basis: the absorber sides catches the CO2 while the stripper side makes use of energy to release the CO2 in a pure form, allowing us to transport it elsewhere. That energy, when applied on a large scale, is a big cost item.
The solvent we’re testing at the second miniplant was made by NTNU, and needs less energy to release the CO2 than the state-of-the-art. We work together with them in creating a bridge between what happens in the lab and how it will be applied by industry. At the same time, we try to bring the costs of using the solvent down by implementing upgrades of our own. We do this as part of the REALISE-CCUS project group, in which many partners are involved. We try to make the solvent more efficient and more stable, driving down the cost of this technology, so that it can be used by as many industries as possible in the future.
After hearing this explanation it makes total sense that you – and indirectly, your colleagues – were awarded the YER Award. What did this recognition mean to you?
Well, on a day-to-day basis nothing has changed really. Nonetheless, the prize did create some more opportunities for me within TNO. While that’s nice, the most important thing is that more people are learning of what our group is doing in regards to CO2 capture. Ten, fifteen years ago, carbon capture and storage (CCS) was not well-regarded.
We got lots of pushback from environmentalist organisations who felt that we were trying to slow the implementation of renewable energy sources. That’s not the case at all: we believe these technologies go hand-in-hand as they help sustain a reliable power grid. Today nearly all NGOs recognize the need for CO2 capture, but it’ll still take some time to neutralise the noise that was made all those years ago. And every bit of publicity helps!
Finally, we’d like to know if you have any future plans.
Now, the captured CO2 is used by greenhouses in the Netherlands to grow crops. More waste-to-energy companies are following AVR’s steps, and we’re supporting them. In the near future, it will be possible to inject it underground in the North Sea.
The Porthos project in the Rotterdam harbour will open up for that possibility from 2024. That’s an environmentally safe way to deal with large volumes of captured CO2. For us, projects like that creates the opportunity to help decarbonize more industries, at a faster pace. That includes applying CCS on ships.
We have just been granted a project, together with many industrial partners, to show that this is possible – at a low cost, and with high efficiency. For the first time, we’ll operate the miniplant on-board of a ship. And of course, for ships and airplanes, we can think of making synthetic fuel out of the captured CO2. Our group is already active there, also. I guess I have plenty of work for at least the next two decades.
Chief Scientific Officer of TNO, Peter Werkhoven, is visiting scientist Juliana Monteiro, the winner of TNO's Young Excellent Researcher Award 2020. Her motto is 'Capturing CO2 for a better world'. What does that mean exactly and what kind of projects is she working on? Watch the video to find out.