For Net Zero targets to be met by 2050, transformations of many industries are needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is unlikely that certain industries will ever be truly CO2 neutral, which means that other industries will need to be CO2 negative in order to ‘balance the books’. Power generators, like Drax in the UK, could well be able to operate as carbon negative with Bioenergy with carbon capture, use and storage (BECCS) technology.
On a wider scale, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) requires new technologies to meet carbon reduction targets. One such promising technology uses solid sorbents to provide a surface for CO2 to ‘stick’ to, offering significant advantages over current strategies. The main advantage is all in the ‘sticking’ process – it requires little energy, saving costs and cutting its environmental impact.
Looking forwards, we need to see some very efficient solid sorbent technologies in the near term if they are to have a chance of being part of the CCS landscape in the next 10 years. All current roadmaps describe a need for rapid development and scale-up of next generation capture technologies.
One type of solid sorbent, Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs), can do just this, with their exceptionally high surface areas being capable of soaking up CO2. However, they are tricky to make, and most manufacturers can still only make small amounts. As such, they can cost several thousand pounds per kilogram. For effective use in industry, several tons would be needed, which has so far made MOFs remain a pipedream.
There are, however, reasons to be optimistic. In partnership with the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham, Promethean Particles were the first to show that MOFs could be produced continuously, cost effectively and at scale. To put capacity in context, the Promethean plant can annually produce over 3 trillion m2 of surface area which equates roughly to the surface area of India. This material would effectively pack 18 London buses. In addition, they are now able to manufacture many of these MOFs using water as the solvent medium.
Now, we are just starting a UKCCSRC funded project that will enable us to break the Catch 22 by demonstrating that MOFs can perform well in real conditions and can be manufactured at scale and in a cost effective and environmentally friendly way. This project will enable us to carry out trials at an actual power station.
The COP26 conference in November this year will inevitably lead to a renewed focus on technologies for reducing CO2 in the atmosphere by Direct Air Capture (DACS) or BECCS. Since it’s in Glasgow, it will bring a spotlight on what is happening in the UK and what projects are showing the most potential for sustainable CCS. This project will be generating new data at just the right time.
The journey to this point was only possible by working at the interface between chemistry and chemical engineering more specifically where materials science meets process engineering.
Chemists at the University were struggling with a novel process to make nano-materials using continuous high pressure water and a collaborative effort resulted in a new type of reactor being developed and patented.
The technology developed at the University of Nottingham was then commercialised through Promethean Particles who initially started at Biocity with a single small reactor system in a fume cupboard and now run the worlds largest multi nano-material plant in the world. Still in Nottingham but at larger facilities near the Jubilee campus.
This progress from bench scale to full scale has taken many years to achieve (so tenacity has been a major factor) and funding from EU and UK sources, collaborating with specialists in many fields, from physicists to clinicians to life cycle modellers.
The materials that we are making for this specific project are relatively new and relatively unknown to the general public and are called metal organic frameworks, which are highly porous materials that can selectively adsorb CO2. We first realised that these materials could be made continuously (and therefore scalably) by working with researchers from the University of Warwick who could make small quantities in batch systems.
I'd recommend collaborating where possible because the outcomes are always greater than the 'sum of the parts'.
My original interests and expertise were in the power industry and therefore it was relatively easy to make connections inside the industry to persuade them of the value of these CO2 adsorbent materials with a view to low cost carbon capture.
The road to initial invention to industrial implementation has been through recruiting and working with talented young researchers with a STEM background.
Overall advice would be to entrepreneurial in the technology space and trust your judgment on what is important and what will make a difference.
We have a real challenge moving forwards with climate change and rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. This will take many innovations, most of which are yet to be made. Necessity is the mother of invention.