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Low-Carbon Process Technologies: Key Pieces of the Net-Zero Future

Low-Carbon Process Technologies: Key Pieces of the Net-Zero Future

November 14, 2022

Achieving dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will require not only the adoption of low-carbon technologies that transition energy generation and use—a topic with much buzz—but also ground-breaking innovations to discover how to make products the low-carbon way. Process technology innovation then needs to be a focus area as the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED) accelerates deployment of low-carbon technologies in industries.

The importance of urgently pursuing low-carbon technologies is clear given the recent devastating flooding, forest fires, droughts, and food insecurity. The global community will gather on Nov. 6-18 in Egypt at COP 27 to discuss GHG reduction progress. Spoiler alert: a recent UNEP report shows we’re far from achieving the required reductions.

Recent legislation, including the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), provides crucial support for accelerated GHG reductions in the U.S. The recent industrial decarbonization roadmap from the Department of Energy (DOE), aligns funding from these Acts with the roadmap, supports partnerships for hydrogen and carbon capture utilization and storage hubs, and creates a manufacturing institute on the electrification of process heat, all of which signal growing support.

Yet, the DOE roadmap shows that even with aggressive pursuit of the decarbonization pillars, some 10-20 percent of current GHG emissions will remain. And although there is increasing customer demand for low-carbon products, industrial processes are not yet adapted to provide products with dramatically reduced carbon intensity.

Across all industries, there are rapidly increasing needs for process technology innovations that will allow companies to meet increasing customer demands for low-carbon products in the near-term and to close the gap in the remaining emissions. This provides an urgent opportunity for innovation in low-carbon process technology.

So, what are low-carbon process technologies? They are technologies directly involved in manufacturing products in industries, such as iron and steel; chemicals; cement; pulp and paper; and aluminum, that are designed to accelerate GHG reductions toward net-zero emissions. Prospects for pursuing these technologies got a big shot in the arm with the $5.8 billion allotted for the Advanced Industrial Facilities Deployment Program (AIFDP) in the IRA. This financial assistance (up to 50 percent cost share) can be used for purchasing and installing these technologies, retrofitting, and for engineering studies. Approaches that connect with process technology include electrification of process heat, sustainable manufacturing, energy efficiency, smart manufacturing, and resource efficiency. The AIFDP program seeks to accelerate the first few demonstrations at scale of transformative low-carbon technologies.

What’s transformative? Considering the severity of the climate change problem, the alarming need to accelerate more options to scale to make faster GHG reductions, and the limited timeline of the program (2022-2026), the greater the reduction the better. The scale of reduction is one criterion for funding. While there are multiple factors to consider, such as how broadly to draw the box around a process and the carbon intensity of the energy source, a target of at least 30% net reduction in GHGs would be a good starting threshold.

What are illustrative examples of process technology innovation? In the Chemicals industry, Lanzatech is using fermentation approaches to convert waste gas emissions from processes into chemical precursors, such as ethanol, which can be converted into fuels and a variety of other materials. Eastman is reforming hard-to-recycle plastics to syngas (CO + H2), illustrating the advancement of materials with a carbon footprint reduction of 20-50 percent. These examples illustrate the evolving nature of how the product is made, how materials can be reused and recycled, and how to employ principles of sustainable manufacturing.

Electrification is a significant pathway in steel manufacturing. This could include direct reduction of iron and low-carbon hydrogen, electrolysis of iron ore, or use of low-carbon electricity directly in reheating furnaces or ladle and tundish heating. An illustrative example here would be an electrochemical process that eliminates the need for coal and works with all steel grades, such as the process from Boston Metal. The use of electricity in these processes could significantly increase demand for low-carbon electricity, so innovation is needed to supply that demand reliably and cost-effectively 24/7. Opportunities to produce low-carbon steel via hydrogen are the centerpiece of hubs proposed in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

The development of consortia and hubs to pursue low-carbon technology advances makes sense as transformative technologies can be expensive ($1-2 billion/ facility), shared infrastructure may need updating, and accelerated learning requires facilitation in a collaborative environment. This is also a natural entry point for engagement with supply chain partners, entrepreneurs, and small/medium-sized manufacturing partners.

As the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED) seeks to accelerate the deployment of low-carbon technologies via the AIFDP program, it is vital that process technology innovation be a significant portion of the portfolio.

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