AZoOptics speaks to Nicole Meulendijks from TNO in the Netherlands about the SPOTLIGHT consortium and its use of sunlight and photonics such as LEDs to turn carbon dioxide and green hydrogen into renewable energy.
What prompted the development of the ‘SPOTLIGHT’ consortium?
The sun is a valuable source of energy. It helps convert feedstocks such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into clean alternative fuels. These fuels are equivalent in terms of functionality to fossil fuels, and thus they can fully replace them, cutting the greenhouse gas emissions (in particular CO2).
In this project, we are developing technologies that attribute to the safeguarding of our future energy supply by the transfer from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources and the reduction of CO2 emissions in order to reach the objectives of the Paris climate agreement; limiting global warming to a maximum of 1.5 ° C in the 21st century and net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050.
How is it possible to use sunlight and LEDs to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) and green hydrogen into clean energy?
We use specific types of materials called plasmonic catalysts. The materials can absorb a large part of the solar spectrum and be applied in sunlight-powered catalytic chemical processes. By tuning the type of active plasmonic material, the selectivity of the reaction can be optimized for a specific type of process (e.g., methane or syngas production).
What products can be produced using your technology?
The key objective of SPOTLIGHT is to develop and validate a photonic device and chemical process concept for the sunlight-powered conversion of CO2 and green hydrogen (H2) to the chemical fuel methane (CH4), and to syngas (CO) as starting material for the production of the chemical fuel methanol (CH3OH). In principle, the device and technology concept developed within the project is not limited to the sunlight-powered conversion of CO2 to fuels, but can also be further for other applications, e.g., sunlight-fueled conversion of CO2 to chemical building blocks such as ethylene and ethanol or reactions in liquid dispersion, e.g., the production of specialty chemicals.
Can you tell us more about the photonics device and how it is being used along with a chemical process to produce clean energy?
The SPOTLIGHT partners have jointly selected a concept consisting of a plate-shaped transparent flow reactor, secondary solar optics (mirrors and/or lenses) for the projection of concentrated (up to 20 suns) sunlight on the reactor in which the chemical process takes place, and an energy-efficient LED light source to ensure continued operation in absence of (sufficient) sunlight.
How will your device be used in existing large-scale carbon capture and utilization processes?
SPOTLIGHT’s equipment and process facilitates CCU, the use of the climate-neutral energy carriers electricity and H2, and the application of a CO2-free energy source to power the chemical process, i.e. sunlight.
The targeted modular photonic device can be applied to hydrogenate CO2 using sunlight as an energy source. This means that it can easily be tuned towards the specific need of CO2 point sources since scale-up is merely a matter of numbering-up.
How is liquid methanol conventionally made?
Conventionally, methanol is produced from petroleum products via hydrogenation of CO and CO2 and reversed water-gas shift reaction (rWGS).
The rWGS reaction, which converts CO2 to CO, is currently industrially applied as part of the production of methanol (CH3OH).
CH3OH is an interesting chemical fuel as it has a high storage density, is easy and safe to store in large quantities, and can be applied to power both small and large engines (either directly or in mixtures with other fuels).
Furthermore, it is widely applied as a chemical building block, e.g. for the production of formaldehyde, acetic acid, mono-, di- and trimethylamine, chloromethane, methyl acetate, methyl benzoate, dimethyl ether, olefins (methanol-to-olefins process), and gasoline (methanol-to-gasoline process).
Is there a potential for this to be adopted throughout the world? What are the challenges that may be faced and how could these be overcome?
The technology has the potential to be adopted throughout the world, especially in areas with high solar intensities.
The technology uses sunlight and photonics to turn carbon dioxide into clean energy. Image Credit: yanikap/Shutterstock.com
The success of implementation is determined by several factors, both technical and economical. The economics of the sunlight-powered Sabatier and rWGS process will be investigated in the project by studying both the CAPEX of the chemical process, including the photonic device and the OPEX costs.
Based on the outcome of these studies, and taking into account a range of future scenarios for the cost price of CH4 and CO from fossil feedstocks, the cost price of H2 from electrolysis, the cost price of renewable electricity, and potential carbon taxes, we will estimate at which point in time the fuels produced in this way are cost-competitive with their fossil-based counterparts.
How important is photonics in the fight against climate change?
To reach the 1.5°C target, as set in the Paris Climate Agreement, we need to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions in 2050.
After 2050, substantial net-negative CO2 emissions need to be realized to comply with the ambition of not letting the average atmospheric temperature increase exceed 1.5 °C. This means that more CO2 has to be taken out of the atmosphere than human activities emit into it. Also, the chemical industry must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to achieve climate neutrality in 2050. By using photonic devices for sunlight-driven processes to convert CO2 into useful energy carriers, a significant contribution can be made towards reaching the climate goals.
How can the photonic device and sunlight-powered process be tailored to the size of CO2 sources?
SPOTLIGHT’s technology is suited for small to medium CO2 sources of less than 1 Mt CO2 per year, either as point source or obtained via direct air capture.
Assuming the maximum size of a suited CO2 source of 1 Mt CO2 p.a., we anticipate that 35000 m² of the device area (equal to 5 football fields) is required. Sources up to 1 Mt CO2 p.a. are currently not served by large-scale CCU processes because of the inability of these processes to adapt scale in a techno-economically feasible way.
What are the next steps for the project?
The project has now been active for one year. In the upcoming period, the focus will be on the manufacturing and validation of the photonic device for the two selected processes (Sabatier and rWGS). Furthermore, techno-economic analysis and life cycle assessment studies will be performed.
Where can readers find more information?
The project - SPOTLIGHT (spotlight-project.eu)
About Nicole Meulendijks
Nicole Meulendijks B.Sc. studied Chemistry at Higher Laboratory Education level in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and obtained her B.Sc. degree in 2001.
She started her carrier as a research assistant at the Eindhoven University of Technology. Since 2003, she has been working at TNO in the Materials Solutions department. Nicole is an experienced project manager and coordinator of funded (H2020, EFRO) projects.
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