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From harmful gas to essential fuel: The evolution of CO₂ recycling

January 2, 2020
Chemical Value Chain

On average in the EU, 31kg of plastic packaging waste is produced per person each year, adding up to 15.8 million tonnes annually.

While the numbers are alarming for those concerned with its impact, efforts are being made to reduce plastic production and to increase how much of it is recycled.

But what if we could apply the same principle to recycling carbon dioxide? With levels of carbon dioxide (CO₂) in the atmosphere higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years, the need to reduce global CO₂ levels has never been more pressing.

According to innovative technology from Carbon Recycling International (CRI), CO₂ recycling on a large scale is now within reach.

Launched in Reykjavik in 2006 by US and Icelandic entrepreneurs, CRI was founded with the vision that primary greenhouse gas CO₂ can be recycled into liquid fuels and chemicals in an economical and environmentally sustainable manner.

By recycling carbon dioxide and reacting with hydrogen, the company is able to produce methanol, a fuel and chemical feedstock that can be used across several applications and industries in place of less sustainable or more harmful chemicals.

“The world needs scalable and flexible solutions to limit carbon emissions from transport and chemical industries.”
The process, which the company has named Emissions-to-Liquids or ETL, helps to mitigate 1.3 tonnes of CO₂ for every tonne of methanol produced.

The methanol can then be used to directly replace fossil-based methanol, as well as various other forms of fossil hydrocarbons and petrochemicals, either directly or through common methanol derivatives.

Benefits of CO₂ recycling to industrial manufacturers
The last few years have seen CRI grow to become a world leader in the emerging field of Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU). This year, the ETL technology is being deployed in two pilot plants in Europe and forms the basis for large deals to design CO₂-to-methanol plants in China.

According to CRI CEO Ingólfur Guðmundsson: “ETL is the only CCU/Power-to-Fuel technology solution to have been applied on an industrial scale for producing commercial volumes of liquid fuels. Its first application, the George Olah Renewable Methanol plant in Iceland, represents an important milestone in the development towards a cleaner future.”

There are a number of operational advantages to the process when compared with more conventional ways of producing methanol. For example, it’s direct and selective process means that no reforming or gas shifting is necessary, resulting in less dependency between subsystems.

Catalyst performance has also been tested over thousands of operational hours at different load profiles throughout the full catalyst lifetime. Additionally, the product purification system is tailored for dewatering and effective removal of impurities specific to the CO₂ -to-methanol reaction.

As a scalable end-to-end solution for producing green methanol from hydrogen and carbon dioxide, ETL is a viable option for a number of industrial manufacturers.

Emerging applications for methanol include blending it with gasoline as a cleaner fuel alternative, aiding the production of biodiesel and fuel ethers suitable for either diesel or gasoline engines, and as a fuel for marine engines, industrial boilers and cooking stoves.

However, the primary market for methanol has been as a feedstock for common synthetic materials. As green methanol is chemically identical to fossil methanol, CRI is able to offer chemical manufacturers the ability to make resins, coatings, insulation, plastic bottles and clothing materials with an ultra-low or even negative carbon footprint.

Whatever the application, integrating the technology with existing systems is simplified because all key process equipment is mounted in skid-based, road transportable modules to help shorten on-site work.

Fighting the threat of climate change
In enabling this solution, CRI provides key technology for the transition to a circular economy capable of zero net CO₂ emissions, all while reducing the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. For industrial manufacturers, the technology offers an opportunity to transform waste gases into new revenue streams from methanol sales.

“Aside from the environmental benefits of using CO2 as a raw material for production of methanol, there are also several technical advantages over conventional methods when it comes to the conversion process itself,” says Guðmundsson.

For example, CRI’s ETL technology is based on hydrogenating CO2 which is safer and more stable than traditional approaches based on the use of carbon monoxide. There is also no expensive high-temperature front-end dedicated to gas reforming, but a proprietary reactor and process design that fully exploits the unique syngas composition.

This allows operators to minimise energy consumption thanks to reduced levels of by-products and improved heat integration, increasing sustainability and product value.

“The overall importance is, of course, to mitigate the great threat of climate change…”
The technology also offers greater flexibility, allowing the plant to run at minimal loads when required, and respond quickly to changes in raw material or energy supply. Based on CRI’s years of operational experience, it is possible to predict a system’s behavior and performance with high precision.

“The world needs scalable and flexible solutions to limit carbon emissions from transport and chemical industries,” says Guðmundsson. “CRI’s ETL process is compatible with a range of energy and emission sources and with the global trend towards increased carbon pricing, we see carbon capture and utilisation playing a future role for many industries, transport and power applications.

“The overall importance is, of course, to mitigate the great threat of climate change – higher temperatures and extreme weather phenomena, which threaten mankind’s future.”

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Source: Chemicals Technology

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