Peter Styring is Professor of Chemical Engineering & Chemistry at the University of Sheffield and Director of the UK Centre for Carbon Dioxide Utilisation. Peter is also Director of the CO2Chem Network, one of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s (EPSRC) Grand Challenges in the Physical Sciences. He is co-author of the influential book “Carbon Capture and Utilisation in the Green Economy” and the Elsevier textbook “Carbon Dioxide Utilisation: closing the carbon cycle”.
Why is CCU an important technology option for Europe?
Carbon dioxide is an under-exploited resource that we really should use to produce value added materials - materials that can replace fossil oil as a petrochemical feedstock. We have emissions from power stations and industrial factories. We also have atmospheric CO2 that we need to reduce the concentration of to avoid catastrophic climate change. We have to remove CO2 from the environment so why not incorporate it into new molecules rather than relying on geological landfill. So, CCU can add to the European economy, providing economic growth while also having an environmental impact. We need to move away from considering CO2 as a waste to looking at it rather as an important carbon feedstock or resource.
Many see CCU as an enabler to CCS, others as a pathway to new industrial opportunities. What is your opinion?
I see both sides of the issue. CCU will enable CCS by footing the bill. CCS is a waste disposal technology. CCU is a renewable commodity-based technology. I see the two technologies not as enemies but as siblings. There will always be rivalry but they must coexist. However, CCU has the capacity to use CO2 emissions in stranded locations, where there is no opportunity for geological storage. That said, CCU should only be considered as an enabling technology if it results in at least a carbon neutral process and should ideally be carbon negative. In order to do this we need to look at the life cycle assessment across the whole process. Many have used CO2 as a working fluid for enhanced oil recovery. However this should not be considered to be CCU as the cradle to grave LCA shows that more CO2 is emitted over the process than is sequestered.
What are the most promising CCU pathways?
There are several. Power to X (PtoX) is gaining momentum as it helps in the creation of a circular economy. Diesel produced using this technology is cleaner than conventional fossil oil fuel. It uses captured CO2 and so displaces fossil carbon. In terms of volume, kerosene has to be the major fuel target. Synthetic jet fuels, even if it is just a few percent of additive in conventional jet fuels, will have a considerable impact. Accelerated mineralisation is also a major target with a potentially large impact.
How is research and innovation in CCU supported in the UK?
This is an interesting point. The majority of funding still goes to CCS. However, the tide appears to be turning, albeit slowly. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded the CO2Chem Grand Challenge Network in 2010 and it is still going strong with over 1,000 members worldwide, the biggest global network. They have also funded the 4CU programme with £4.5 million (EUR 6.3 million) over four and a half years.
What have been the most significant achievements of CCU research to date?
There is huge interest in fundamental research which is of course essential to the development of the field. However, the real innovations have been where that fundamental research has been translated to commercial or near commercial activity. I would say there was not one significant achievement but three:
- Power to X (PtoX) where renewable electric power is converted to synthetic fuels, either liquids or gases. This is exemplified by the technology developed by companies like sunfire in Germany or CRI in Iceland.
- CO2-containing polymers such as polyurethane polyols developed by Covestro (formerly Bayer Materials Science) and polycarbonates developed by Novomer in the US.
- Accelerated mineralisation, such as the conversion of waste residues into construction materials, such as the building blocks and aggregates developed by Carbon8 in the UK.
How can policy and regulation support CCU?
For policy to be effective, governments need to recognise the importance of CCU. Not just to the environment but to the economy. Governments need to see CO2 as a commodity chemical feedstock and not a waste. Waste materials cost to have them remediated. They can never make a positive contribution to the national or global economy. By treating CO2 as a commodity we generate products that have market value and so contribute profitability to the economy. On its own, this would be an excellent scenario. However, we will still need it to run alongside waste remediation technologies such as CCS, so CCU can be seen as a technology that will allow the economic bill to be offset. Policy and regulation need to be informed by expert scientific evidence. However, economics in the short term tend to dominate policy setting. If we look to a 2050 vision, that is 35 years in the future. In stable political regions this is typically seven changes in administration. Therefore, any long-term visions need to take a cross-party approach, which is difficult if not impossible at the best of times.
One thing that is essential is that there is a global carbon price. Much of current economic scenario setting has CO2 cost as an unknown and unstable variable. Furthermore, if CCU is to operate successfully it must be on a level playing field with regards to subsidies. Vast subsidies are given to the oil and gas industries. The same is true for CCS projects, yet CCU does not attract subsidies. If CCU is to be competitive it needs to attract comparable subsidies, or each technology is forced to operate unsubsidised.
How does progress with the development of CCU in Europe compare with the rest of the world?
It is interesting to compare Europe as a whole or even individual member states against the rest of the world. The last International Conference on Carbon Dioxide Utilisation in Singapore (2015) had delegates from 32 different nations. The highest number was from China, then Singapore and South Korea. The UK was the fourth most represented nation with Germany seventh. However, if we combine all European Member States then the EU was by far the strongest representation. Germany is the most advanced Member State in terms of commercialisation, a result of a strong science and engineering base and an innovative funding strategy by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The UK is also strong in this area although public funds are limited in comparison. While the US appears to be strong in CCU this has to be tempered by the fact that much of this is focuses on enhanced oil and gas recovery which adds new fossil carbon to the supply chain. CCU works best by removing fossil carbon from the system.
So the conclusion is that Europe is strong on the global stage, possibly the strongest. However, we need to build on this success to maintain a market lead. To achieve this we need engineers, scientists, economists and policy-makers working together to achieve European excellence and competitiveness. This places obligations at a European level but also, importantly, at Member State and regional level. Europe has a unique opportunity in CCU and we need to all work together as it will increase profitability while reducing fossil carbon from the environment while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions and securing energy, chemicals and building materials supply throughout the years.