Lothar Mennicken graduated from the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-University of Bonn in agricultural sciences in 1989. After conducting research work in Malaysia and Berlin he received a doctorate from the Technical University of Berlin. International scientific-technological cooperation was his main topic until 2010. Since then he has acted as senior adviser at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), in the Resources and Sustainability Division, where he is in charge of raw materials, including carbon capture and utilisation.
Why is CCU an important technology option for Europe?
Europe is a world leader when it comes to innovative and key enabling technologies. The chemical and biotechnological industries, and also the processing industry, are strong and major drivers of economic growth. CCU technologies will play a major role in the future when it comes to adapting to the changing raw material market – in the energy sector as well as in the chemical sector. CCU can deliver solutions to major challenges: To support the transition of the energy system towards fluctuating renewable energies, CCU technologies can provide the means for large-scale energy storage with minimal land use requirements. It can also support the transition of the transport sector by providing technologies for clean fuel production from non-fossil sources with an extremely low carbon footprint. A major contribution is, however, the provision of an alternative raw material base for the chemical industry. By developing CO2-based production routes for base chemicals, the dependency on fossil carbon sources of the chemical industry and all subsequent production routes will decrease. Furthermore, as an additional benefit, all these factors also help to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions significantly.
Many see CCU as an enabler to CCS, others as a pathway to new industrial opportunities. What is your opinion?
In Germany, there is no debate about CCS anymore. CCS has a very bad image in Germany and has basically been rejected by the German public and media. Hence, CCU is not seen to have any connection with CCS. On the European level however, CCS is still a topic. I believe though, that the two technologies do not have much in common. First of all, there are the costs: CCS is basically a non-profit technology, where every step is costly. CCU however has the potential to produce value-added products that have a market and can generate a profit. Secondly, the primary aim of CCS is the mitigation of climate change by storing large amounts of carbon dioxide underground. There is no inclination to add value to the captured carbon. In contrast, CCU’s major driver is to substitute fossil carbon as a raw material by recycling CO2. CCU and CCS are related technologies with regard to carbon capture, but CCU should not be limited as being just an enabler for CCS, as it can do so much more than simply deposit carbon dioxide underground.
What are the most promising CCU pathways? What are the main technological barriers to their commercialisation?
For Germany, the most promising pathways are certainly twofold. Firstly, in the chemical sector we have a very promising example from the polymer industry. Covestro is currently commercialising the first CO2-based polyurethane product, e.g. for mattresses. The mattresses are expected to hit the market in 2016. This is a real chance for the CCU community, as it shows that CO2-based products are an economically viable route in major market sectors. Secondly, the Power to Liquids (PtL) technology has strong potential. The Dresden based start-up company sunfire opened the world’s first PtL-plant of its kind last year in Germany. This plant in particular has a symbolic character as it demonstrates to a broader audience that liquid fuels can be made from CO2, water, and renewable energy. Considering that there will be demand for liquid fuels in the transportation sector even in the future (aviation, long haul freight transportation), PtL can facilitate the transition of the transportation sector to renewable energy with a very low carbon footprint and in some cases to drop-in-fuels (e.g. diesel, kerosene, gasoline). With respect to technological hurdles for commercialisation – there are not many unsolved problems left; the major hurdles are more regulatory in nature.
How is research and innovation in CCU supported in Germany?
The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) started a major research and development program in CCU in Germany in 2009, ahead of almost every other nation in the world. We strongly believed in the potential that CCU technologies hold for sustainable development and a “green economy”. With the first funding measure - “Technologies for Sustainability and Climate Protection: Chemical Processes and Use of CO2” - 33 collaboration projects between academia and industry were supported with approximately EUR 100 million, to which industry added another EUR 50 million. Projects, like the aforementioned Covestro and sunfire projects were part of the measure. To build-up on this major success, BMBF has recently launched a new funding measure, “CO2Plus”, which focusses on the utilisation of CO2 as a raw material and also aims to enhance currently underdeveloped fields of research and development in Germany, e.g. photo- and electrocatalysis and direct air capture. Additionally, BMBF has introduced a novel funding instrument, “r+Impuls” - here the transfer of research and development results into the market is tackled and projects with a technology readiness level of at least 5 can receive support for the risky upscaling from pilot plant to the first industrial demonstration plant.
What have been the most significant achievements of CCU research to date?
Again, CCU has already proven that it can contribute to major challenges and is technologically ready to be commercialised in many cases. The success stories show that clean technologies can already have a market, as seen in the polymer sector. In Germany in particular, CCU has brought industries together, like steel (CO2 as waste) and chemistry (CO2 as a raw material) that have had no significant overlap in the past. The potential for cross-industry approaches is huge and this can provide an insight into the industry of the future. Another achievement is the speed of the developments: five years ago almost no one believed in the success of CCU technologies, yet worldwide today we have successful examples that are market-ready. There are only a few other technology fields that have developed so quickly.
How can policy and regulation support CCU?
Particularly in the fuel sector, a change in regulation (the renewable energy directive (RED), and fuel quality directive (FQD)) can boost the use of CCU technologies. At present, these fuels are in a kind of “no-man’s land” as they are not defined in the EU terminology and if they are included, like in the last amendment of the RED, the definition is not very clear. Andreas Pilzecker of DG CLIMA recently referred to them as “zombies”. Policy and regulation should provide a clear definition and course of action.
How does progress with the development of CCU in Europe compare with the rest of the world?
Europe is leading when it comes to CCU technologies. However, there is the danger that technology development and application will move to other countries like the USA or certain Asian countries, in particular China, as they are catching up fast. This has happened to other emerging technology fields (e.g. batteries) before and we have to act now in order avoid this “technology drain”. If Europe manages to keep hold of the innovations, there is a huge market opportunity to sell the technologies to non-European markets in future which will be beneficial to the European economy. Industry and politics have to work hand in hand to ensure this promising emerging technology will become a European success story.