14 April 2016

CO2 should be a sustainable business

DTU received seven million DKK from VILLUM FONDEN to find new and more effective solutions

It is a very promising, but so far ineffective process to convert CO2 into sustainable fuels and chemicals, such as methanol. DTU Chemical Engineering has received seven million DKK from VILLUM FONDEN in order to find new and more effective solutions.

It is no secret that our planet is in need of alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels. At the same time, it is of common knowledge that we are still far from being able to call ourselves independent of oil, coal and natural gasses, which every year send billions of tons of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere.

What fewer people might realize is that the harmful greenhouse gas instead can be used in production of several useful products – and even be a source for a more sustainable future. For example, CO2 can be directly converted into methanol, one of the promising alternatives to fossil fuels.

There is a significant bump on the road, however: The process is too ineffective and the yield of methanol too low in the end. Therefore, DTU Chemical Engineering has received a grant of seven million DKK from VILLUM FONDEN in order to find a solution that is both environmentally and economically attractive.

Too much water

The methanol is produced by creating a reaction between the CO2 and hydrogen. The problem is that the catalysts used to control the reaction can’t prevent that a significant part of the production ends up as unwanted hydrocarbons. At the same time, they waste too much of the hydrogen by converting it into water.

“That is problematic, as there are significant costs associated with producing hydrogen by using solar cells for example. We are still relatively far from having anything of commercial interest”, says Assistant Professor Jakob Munkholt Christensen from DTU Chemical Engineering.

Therefore, the department will mainly focus on the development of new catalysts with the ability to effectively convert CO2 into methanol as well as other valuable alcohols. These include ethanol and butanol, which are also seen as alternatives to fossil fuels.

A difficult process

“Almost all fuels and chemicals contain carbon, which today is obtained from fossil fuels. CO2 is a possible source of carbon, when we no longer wish to use – or don’t have anymore – fossil fuels, and the ability to effectively convert CO2 into chemicals and fuels is therefore interesting and has a great potential in the long run”, says Professor Anker Degn Jensen from DTU Chemical Engineering.

The seven million DKK allocated to the project are part of a larger 150 million DKK grant to the establishment of a new center at DTU focusing on sustainable chemicals and fuels. The work kicks off this summer and will continue for the next eight years with four new PhD students expected to be hired at DTU Chemical Engineering.

“It is a very challenging process and very difficult to find materials with the right abilities to make effective catalysts. Otherwise, it would have been done already”, says Anker Degn Jensen.

Source: DTU, press release, 2016-03-11.

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