Petrochemicals Without Fossil Fuels: A National Climate-Tech Initiative
Manufacturing of plastics and other petrochemicals is on track to become the leading market for fossil fuels in the next three decades and a major contributor to climate change. It’s possible to produce these valuable materials without fossil fuels—biological systems have been making complex chemicals from water and air at ambient temperatures for three billion years. But practical ways to reproduce the complex chemistry of these natural processes have baffled generations of scientists. They are, however, quickly uncovering these tricks with recent advances in systems biology, artificial intelligence, and electrochemistry. Any short list of innovations that would revolutionize global energy would surely include systems that make petrochemicals without fossil fuels. But policy in the United States has never given this field a fraction of the resources it warrants. The moment is ripe for a major national research and deployment initiative to fill this glaring hole in our portfolio. This post draws on a fuller analysis of “New Technology Options to Decarbonize Petrochemical Production” by Henry Kelly.
Reducing emissions in petrochemical production is complicated by the fact that, unlike other manufacturing processes, it uses fossil fuels both for energy and as a feedstock. Emissions arise throughout the value chain, including extraction and transportation of petroleum and natural gas, refineries, chemical plants, product use, and waste disposal (whether by incineration or eventual decay in the environment). Petrochemicals made without fossil fuels could eliminate the vast majority of these emission sources. Even their end-of-life emissions would simply return carbon to the atmosphere. The strategy would not, of course, eliminate other impacts of plastic waste in the environment.
There are three basic strategies for producing petrochemicals without fossil fuels: using plant materials, using recycled plastics, or through direct production from carbon dioxide and water. Of these, it’s becoming increasingly clear that only the direct production method can promise zero or negative lifecycle.
Plant materials will inevitably be limited because they will be in high demand from markets like renewable aircraft fuel. Increasing production to meet petrochemical demands in significant volumes would also lead to unacceptable environmental costs and threaten global food supplies.
Chemical recycling faces the monumental challenge of collecting discarded materials. Recycling systems also have trouble coping with the messy mixtures intrinsic to the waste stream. And most current systems release significant volumes of greenhouse gases. Advanced processes promise to reduce emissions, but they are unlikely to achieve very low emissions levels.
Direct production of petrochemicals from electricity (or sunlight), carbon dioxide, and water results in little or no release of greenhouse gases, uses abundant materials as feedstocks, and avoids major challenges in collecting and transporting inputs. There are many sources of industrial carbon dioxide, and systems capable of using carbon dioxide extracted from the air would have abundant carbon. Water availability could be a constraint, though not necessarily more so than for existing production methods, which use considerable volumes of water.
A major, focused effort on the direct production of petrochemicals is needed. To kick it off, the White House should direct the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop a preliminary plan to develop and deploy synthetic routes to making petrochemicals from water or hydrogen and captured/recycled CO2, starting with an inventory of resources already available. Numerous DOE programs are working on relevant topics, many linked to “earth shot” programs on hydrogen, carbon removal, and industrial heat. A more detailed plan, including new funding proposals, should be produced within twelve months under the direction of a high-level advisory panel that includes experts from universities, corporate research organizations, and national laboratories. The plan should encompass contributions from the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Department of Agriculture, other federal agencies, and the National Academies.
One cornerstone of the plan will need to be a clear national goal. The European Commission, for instance, has established an ambitious goal for 2030: “at least 20 percent of the carbon used in products should come from sustainable non-fossil sources.”
Like other “earth shots”, this new one needs three major thrusts: aggressive research and development (R&D) investment, resources to support demonstrations and rapid scale-up of promising results, and a strategy to stimulate demand for the low-carbon products produced through market incentives and procurement. The budget should be equivalent to the others: hundreds of millions for R&D and billions for demonstration, scale-up, and deployment. The key challenge is cost reduction, which should be the initiative’s core focus. It must also address environmental impacts, the use of rare or toxic materials, worker safety, and benefits and risks for disadvantaged communities. And it should include a major investment in training and retraining workers for the array of new skills that will be required.
In addition, priorities should include methane (natural gas), ethylene (a feedstock for plastic), and other petrochemicals with:
- Advanced catalysts
- Electrochemical cells using hydrogen and carbon dioxide as inputs
- Electrochemical cells using water and carbon dioxide as inputs. These devices produce hydrogen from water and then desired chemicals. Some cells are powered by electricity while others use sunlight (“artificial photosynthesis”).
- Engineered micro-organisms using a variety of inputs (including water, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide)
- Combinations of electrochemical devices and microorganisms
- Reverse fuel cells that use electricity to make fuels
Most low-carbon chemical processes under development use concentrated carbon dioxide captured from industrial sources or power plants. They might ultimately use carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere as well.
Some of these technologies are being tested at commercial scale. Large-scale operations often involve different approaches than in the laboratory and must be managed by people and institutions with very different skill sets. The initiative must include a strategy focused on the unique innovation challenges of scaleup.
Initial commercial production of zero-emission petrochemicals will not be economically competitive with conventional products. Some mechanism must be found to create early markets that favor low-carbon solutions and to compensate climate-friendly products for their environmental benefits. Development of rigorous and credible quantitative methods to calculate the net impact of petrochemical production, use, and product disposal must be a key component of the initiative. Once developed, such metrics can guide tax incentives for producers, loan programs to early commercial operators, and regulations.
The new approaches to petrochemical production offer benefits in addition to emissions reductions. They may be able to operate at scales far smaller than the current approach and thus could be located in more diverse geographic regions. The new approaches would also eliminate the environmental impact of large plants that abut disadvantaged communities today.
We shouldn’t let the long history of failed efforts to develop commercial alternatives to fossil-based petrochemical production deter us from this course. It’s true that the direct production of petrochemicals from carbon dioxide and water faces formidable technical challenges, and low-cost domestic natural gas adds to the economic challenge. But the truth is that we just haven’t tried hard to solve this problem. Zero-emission petrochemical production has never enjoyed the focus, the visibility, or the resources directed at other energy innovations. This must change. The goal is critically important. We know that it’s technically possible. Let’s make it affordable.