Accelerating Industrial Decarbonization
Every Technology is Needed in the Race to Eliminate Greenhouse Gas Emissions
by: Ken Chlapik, Global Market Manager, Johnson Matthey | August 23, 2023
Decarbonization at Scale Needs to Start Today
To achieve net-zero targets beyond this decade, we will need to convert the electrical grid to low-carbon renewable power, scale up, and adopt green technologies in industry. These green technologies include renewables, hydrogen electrolyzers, batteries, and fuel cells. Accelerating these technologies will require new materials, supply chains, and manufacturing capabilities. Multi-billion-dollar investments must be made to enable this long-term shift to net-zero. More than the pace, scale, and capabilities of these technologies need to be required to meet net-zero targets on their own. To curb global emissions, a technologically aggressive approach to reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions that uses all the tools and technologies available is necessary.
Renewable Carbon Sources Sustain the Viability of Petrochemicals Into the Future
In the broader context, the chemical industry’s products contain carbon, which will continue, so a carbon-free chemical industry isn’t possible. However, the industry can and will find ways to use the carbon more efficiently, reducing carbon intensity and CO₂ emissions to levels. As part of this drive, the industry is considering making chemicals using renewable carbon sources, such as biomass, municipal solid waste, and captured CO₂. Combining this carbon with hydrogen generated through electrolysis powered by renewable electricity can create sustainable fuels and chemicals. For example, captured CO₂ and renewable hydrogen can be directly transformed into methanol or converted within the reverse water-gas shift reaction to a Synthetic Gas (syngas) containing CO, CO₂, and hydrogen. Syngas can be further processed through well-established Fischer-Tropsch synthesis processes to make chemicals and fuels. This is one route to make drop-in fuel for airplanes – Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), critical to decarbonizing the aviation industry. In addition, syngas-based technologies can store and transport renewable energy in the form of methanol and ammonia. Low-carbon methanol and ammonia are also being proposed as fuels for sustainable shipping.
Progressing Projects With Sustainability & Longevity in Mind
When considering decarbonization solutions, factoring in the lifecycle emissions associated with implementing a new solution or technology is essential. To utilize hydrogen in the future, energy infrastructure and electric grids must be green. However, waiting for renewable energy to achieve a green electrical grid may be too late in some cases. Therefore, using solutions that decarbonize outside the grid allows the end-user to avoid competition for renewable energy with hard-to-abate sectors and enables significant carbon reductions to be achieved today.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a key technology to reduce emissions in hard-to-abate sectors. CCS can be applied to reduce emissions from industrial flue stacks or combined with hydrogen production to create low-carbon hydrogen, replacing conventional fossil fuels. CCS-enabled (blue) hydrogen is a mature and available technology that provides a way to produce large volumes of low-carbon hydrogen. When the critical goal is to reduce emissions, the scalability of CCS-enabled hydrogen and its ability to supply industrial-level heat demand make it a valuable technology to explore in the industry.
Existing hydrogen plants can also be repurposed to create new sources of low-carbon H2. For example, over 40% of the existing hydrogen plants built for refining clean fuels are less than 20 years old. These plants risk becoming stranded assets by waiting to establish renewable grids and electrolytic (green) hydrogen. CCS technologies can be used to expand the working life of existing syngas production assets. Plants can be further adjusted to meet even more stringent standards by utilizing renewable gas feeds from waste and biogenic sources to provide some of the lowest carbon intensity production.
An alternative view and approach are to replace aged assets with a single greenfield, CCS-enabled hydrogen plant for the most efficient and low-carbon syngas production for hydrogen and petrochemicals. The optimal pathway will be different for each plant as asset age, existing and future production requirements, and differences in capital cost between greenfield and retrofit projects all play a part in determining the best solution.
Flexible & Resilient Solutions for Maximizing CO₂ Capture Amid Uncertainty
Against this backdrop of conditions and challenges, a technology suite stands out as suited to generate low-carbon hydrogen at scale. Autothermal Reformer (ATR) and Gas-Heated Reformer (GHR) technologies provide a single, high-pressure CO₂ stream that makes it easy and economical to capture with very high efficiency (i.e., up to 99%+). These technologies have been used at an industrial scale for decades and remove the need for a separate stream of methane fuel to generate the heat to drive the syngas production reactions. This eliminates the low-pressure, dilute CO₂ stream from fossil fuel combustion that generates heat for the process, a characteristic of the Steam Methane Reformer (SMR) technology predominant today.
ATR and GHR technologies can be used in both greenfield and retrofit applications. As a retrofit, they are integrated to “bolt-on” to existing syngas production assets. This minimizes plot plan, equipment, and resource usage to maximize capital efficiency for reducing high levels of carbon dioxide emissions. For greenfield plants, an ATR-GHR combination is ideal for producing gigawatt-scale hydrogen at the lowest cost and carbon intensity, enabling the replacement of fossil fuel combustion at a scale that is not yet possible for electrolytic hydrogen to achieve. Both applications have a role in reducing the overall carbon intensity of petrochemical production processes and sites.
Starting in the 19th century, around the time of the industrial revolution (1760-1840), the industrial-scale production of chemicals, and later, petrochemicals, has been an influential part of societal change. Since their early beginnings, these industries have constantly evolved, adopting novel processes, technology, and equipment to drive efficiency improvements, increases in quality, and cost reductions. Now the world faces new challenges. As the effects of climate change amplify, a growing number of companies and countries recognize the urgent action needed to reduce human impact on the environment.
Partnerships: The Key to Driving Change
The scale and immediacy of climate change have created a global threat that requires unprecedented levels of collaboration to overcome. To enable change, operators and technology providers must cultivate deep partnerships to a level that hasn’t been seen before. Although we are seeing the seeds of this evolution begin to blossom, more needs to happen to execute the pace and scale of the decarbonization required. Regulation, incentives, and infrastructure are the key factors determining whether this trend continues to grow or is shattered by the realities of uncertain subsidies and the complexity of meeting changing legislation. While these factors are out of an operator’s control, building actionable roadmaps with the right partners can ensure they are prepared for future challenges. The petrochemical industry must adopt ready-now technology that can make an impact today while building the ecosystem for future sustainable production.
About Johnson Matthey & ClimeCo’s Partnership
For over 200 years, Johnson Matthey (JM) has led market transformations and been at the forefront of implementing sustainable change across industries. JM has partnered with ClimeCo to accelerate the adoption of advanced carbon capture solutions in industries, specifically synthesis gas (syngas) producers. Their technology is at the heart of the energy transition, enabling its customers across the petrochemical industry to tackle their decarbonization challenges. As a provider of vital components and technologies for low-carbon hydrogen production and a suite of solutions for SAF and sustainable fuels, JM is a key partner for customers on their journey to net-zero.
About the Author
Ken Chlapik, Global Market Manager for Johnson Matthey’s Low Carbon Solutions, spearheads the development of CLEANPACE™ and ADVANCED REFORMING™ technologies and is a recognized authority in industrial decarbonization. Ken’s career has contributed to tripling SMR-based hydrogen capacity for clean fuels in oil refining during the energy transition, a role recognized by the Peter G. Andrews Lifetime Service Award. His deep expertise, rooted in a Chemical Engineering degree from Northwestern University, is exemplified in published articles and contributions to the ICAC and AFPM, accelerating decarbonization in refining and petrochemicals around the world.