This article was contributed by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Research and Innovation:
© iStock/Evgeny Gromov
On the basis of the Council conclusions from March 20141, and the continued pressure to lower CO2 emissions and find alternatives to fossil fuels, the Commission together with Cefic (The European Chemical Industry Council) took the initiative to organise a scoping workshop "Transforming CO2 into value for a rejuvenated European economy"2, which took place on 26 March 2015. The event, hosted by the Directorate for Key Enabling Technologies of DG RTD, aimed at opening a discussion on CO2 conversion and utilisation, gathering a critical mass of stakeholders at all levels, from decision makers (representatives of ministries and programme owners) to industry delegates and European Commission representatives. The event gave a broad overview of the status of CO2 conversion technologies in Europe, including programmes and projects currently running. This gave the chance to gain a common understanding of the state-of-the-art and the potential for demonstration of CO2 transformation and utilisation technologies at industrial scale.
The technological discussion revolved along three main axes:
- CO2 as a new renewable feedstock for production of chemicals, polymers and inorganic materials;
- CO2 conversion for energy storage and fuels;
- Direct photoconversion of CO2.
The workshop provided a discussion forum for setting an agenda of shared priorities on the topic at European level, leading potentially to the development of a Europe-wide initiative. It was also an important step to understand whether there is a political will from the relevant actors to set up a shared initiative, the feasibility of such a major endeavour and the instruments that might be suitable and available to launch such a programme. The workshop featured presentations from programme owners from 7 European countries (BE, DE, ES, FR, NL, NO and PL) followed by an overview of the currently deployed technologies and 18 individual presentations by industrial representatives about currently ongoing projects. The programmes and projects presented addressed a wide range of technologies covering many industrial sectors (e.g. chemical, steel, cement, automotive, energy), thereby illustrating the importance of the topic in the different European countries and for European industry. Industry presented several technology options, which made it possible to appreciate the level of maturity (TRLs) of the concepts (broadly between TRL 2 and 9 depending on the technologies) as well as business models that could provide economically viable ways to exploit such technologies. Industry stressed that such technologies provide a convenient and innovative way to replace intermediates and products which are currently produced from fossil sources, providing potentially more sustainable analogues, thus making them a desirable alternative. It was emphasised that, considering the whole life cycle, the improved sustainability of the analogues obtained from CO2 strongly depends on the hydrogen production process utilised. Hydrogen production technologies are tightly linked to CO2 conversion technologies, and a major improvement in the environmental footprint of products and intermediates obtained from CO2 can only be obtained if clean technologies are utilised for hydrogen production (e.g. electrolysis of water).
From the presentations and discussions, the following general issues arose:
- The business case for CO2 utilisation as an alternative to fossil carbon is not yet there (low oil prices, competing against established processes, currently no impetus from regulatory framework). However, companies have positioned ongoing CO2 conversion activities as part of their sustainable business models (increasing the sustainable impact of their products). Some activities are still at research or innovation phase, while other activities are already at first industrial production or close to commercialisation.
- The need for an urgent integrated action (considering global competition) was stressed by many companies. It was considered important to advance now with pilot and demonstration projects in order to be prepared when oil prices go up in order to advance faster than the competing regions.
- The high potential for new chemical pathways and routes and the high commercialisation potential for large-volume applications were highlighted by different companies.
- Several companies stressed the importance of the regulatory context: in particular the Emission Trading System and the Renewable Energy Directive/Fuel Quality Directive would have significant impact on the reuse of CO2 as a feedstock for chemicals or fuels in Europe.
Many of the national programme owners stated clearly during their presentations an interest, for the respective countries, in discussing and potentially participating in a large Europe-wide initiative to support the development of CO2 conversion technologies. The commitment from industry was also clear, considering the statements and the significant projects that are currently running.
In an extension of the Council conclusions from March 2014, the opportunity to use the new state aid instrument on Important Projects of Common European Interest (IPCEI), as a potential vehicle to work on projects with a European dimension which are of strategic importance for the EU economy, was suggested by the Commission. Such a project could combine funds from the Member States and the regions, while leveraging industrial investments for a large-scale common European demonstration programme. The IPCEI Communication of June 2014 (2014/C 188/02) 3 comprises special state aid rules providing major novelties compared to other state aid regimes, notably for the following reasons:
- They are open to all domains of economic activity and can be relevant for all EU policies (e.g. research, energy, KETs);
- They provide a greater variety of support measures (e.g. repayable advances, loans, guarantees or grants);
- They enable the possibility for a coverage up to 100% of the funding gap on the basis of an extended list of eligible costs;
- They provide that state aid may be granted for first industrial deployment (i.e. beyond R&D) of a new product with high research and innovation content and/or a fundamentally innovative production process.
Speakers from the European Commission (EC) highlighted that CO2 conversion and utilisation holds the promise to create new business opportunities for European industries, while addressing some of the major societal challenges in the EU, and is thus fully in line with the priorities of the European Commission, as shown by EC activities relating to for example the Energy Union or the Circular Economy. The EC speakers emphasised that a large-scale European project in the area of CO2 conversion would require close cooperation between private and public actors and strong commitments from both sides. They also stressed the Commission's support for an EU-wide strategy on transforming CO2 into value and its commitment to facilitate the process to shape a large-scale project.
The main outcomes of the discussions were the following:
- The workshop showed the potential to transform CO2 from a problem to a resource.
- CO2 valorisation could provide significant opportunities for the European industry, in terms of opening new markets and creating jobs and growth.
- The participation in the workshop of a wide variety of stakeholders, from Member States’ representatives to industry delegates, engaging in constructive discussions was positive and testifies to the commitment of the different actors, showing real potential for building an ambitious initiative on CO2 conversion technologies.
- The instrument of "Important Projects of Common European Instruments (IPCEI)" could be suitable for a large-scale project in the area of CO2 conversion and utilisation, bringing together public and private actors, combining their resources in line with EU state aid rules.
The Commission services reminded the workshop participants that, while they can count on coordination support from the EC, it is up to industry and the interested Member States to engage in the preparation of such a major initiative on "CO2 conversion technologies" to make a big difference for them and for Europe.
The workshop clearly represented the starting point for further discussions in view of setting up new activities. Additional meetings have taken place among stakeholders to find synergies and strengthen common European activities in regard to showing the potential for industrial demonstrations of the technologies and it is anticipated that a roadmap that outlines the different European activities together with a timeline will be developed within the first half of 2016.
In addition to the above, the Commission has launched several relevant calls (among others) within Horizon 20204 to help the research community in developing the above-mentioned technologies to a stage that would allow industrial demonstration and thereby show whether CO2 utilisation is a viable approach for sustainable production of fuels, chemicals and intermediates:
SPIRE 5 (2016): Potential use of CO2/CO and non-conventional fossil natural resources in Europe as feedstock for the process industry;
SPIRE 8 (2017): CO2 utilisation to produce added value chemicals;
SPIRE 10 (2017): New electrochemical solutions for industrial processing, which contribute to a reduction of CO2 emissions;
BIOTEC 05 (2017): Microbial platforms for CO2-reuse processes in the low-carbon economy;
LCE 25 (2016): Utilisation of captured CO2 as feedstock for the process industry;
NMBP 19 (2017): Cost-effective materials for "power-to-chemical" technologies;
NMBP 20 (2017): High-performance materials for optimizing carbon dioxide capture.
All in all, stakeholders feel that CO2 transformation and utilisation is an economic and technological opportunity that the EU should not miss.