Sophie Wilmet joined the Research & Innovation department of the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic), in 2007. Currently Innovation Manager in charge of enabling technologies, she is responsible for the activities related to CO2 valorisation. She is a member of the Partnership Board of the PPP SPIRE and is also actively involved in the European Technology Platform for Sustainable Chemistry (SusChem). She graduated as a chemical engineer (ENSCMu) in France and holds a PhD in chemistry.
The chemical valorisation of CO2 has the potential to define a new landscape and business opportunities for European industry in the next decades, and contribute to addressing major challenges such as energy security, resource efficiency and growth through breakthrough concepts and new business models in the long run.
The potential value of CO2
The utilisation of sustainable alternative raw materials by the chemical industry can complement the energy and resource efficiency of chemical processes and contribute to the development of a low-carbon economy. CO2 is available in abundance in Europe and can be considered as an alternative source of carbon when processed via innovative CO2 conversion technologies that make it possible to recycle carbon from industrial flue gases. The positive environmental impact of the chemical valorisation of CO2 is not only determined by the quantity of CO2 used, but also - and even more-so - by the CO2 emissions which are avoided by replacing fossil feedstock by this new alternative feedstock. Innovative CO2 conversion technologies can therefore contribute to reducing the use of fossil carbon sources and import dependency, as well as relieving pressure on biomass, land use and other environmental stressors.
CO2 conversion also has the potential to increase the share of energy produced from renewable sources via improved management of renewable electricity with large scale chemical energy storage using Power to X technologies. These processes enable the production of methane that can be injected into the existing gas network, in addition to other energy carriers such as methanol. Moreover, CO2 conversion technologies can provide solutions for the decarbonisation of the transport sector via the production of advanced sustainable alternative fuels (e.g. methanol, gasoline, diesel, dimethyl ether (DME)) using CO2 as carbon feedstock.
Chemical utilisation of CO2 in Europe
Many chemical companies are already working on the development of various CO2 conversion technologies (e.g. catalysts, membranes, process technologies) at different Technology Readiness Levels for various applications: high added value fine chemicals, polymers, high volume basic chemicals and energy vectors. The competitive access to renewable energy and the development of innovative processes to generate renewable hydrogen at lower cost are key factors for the deployment of some of the CO2 valorisation routes. The optimisation of the purification of flue gases to provide companies with competitive access to the appropriate quality of CO2 will also play a role in the economic viability of the technologies.
The utilisation of CO2 as an alternative feedstock would be a major technological transition for the chemical industry and would entail significant investments. These new clean technologies have to compete against established processes which have achieved a high degree of efficiency and competitiveness, and some sustainable materials with new properties have to overcome market penetration. The deployment of CO2 conversion technologies contributing to a low-carbon and circular economy will therefore require an adequate policy framework (regulation including the Renewable Energy Directive, standardisation and labelling systems) with recognition of the environmental added value of the chemical valorisation of CO2 based on a consistent approach to life cycle assessment.
Many specific activities related to CO2 utilisation have already been initiated at national and regional levels in Europe. The conversion of CO2 is also a priority of SusChem, the European Technology Platform for Sustainable Chemistry. The European Commission is supporting various projects through different funding programmes, and topics addressing CO2 conversion are included in several work programmes of Horizon 2020 including some SPIRE calls.
Time for a European integrated approach
However a more coherent and coordinated approach across Europe and across public and private sectors is needed to complement the existing dispersed efforts and create the critical mass and speed needed to compete with other global regions such as the USA and Asia. In this respect, the European chemical industry, together with companies from other industrial sectors, is developing a proposal for a European integrated approach to CO2 valorisation: Phoenix1. Any initiative on the utilisation of CO2 as a sustainable source of carbon, going beyond a mere financial instrument, should engage and stimulate European investors under a common vision supported by leaders from both public and private sectors to:
- provide appropriate support at European, national and regional levels to ensure development of the various CO2 conversion technologies up to pilot plant and first-of-a-kind industrial plant;
- ensure coherence and stability over time of the resource and energy policy framework, which will be essential to allow investment in related low-carbon technologies and ensure European leadership in clean processes.
The moment to take action in Europe and for Europe is now.
1 Final report of the High Level Group on Key Enabling Technologies - 24 June 2015