INDUSTRY INSIGHTThought Leadership

Emission valorization as a key enabler for circular economy

By Amit Rawat, Senior Research Analyst, TechVision, Frost & Sullivan and Aarthi Janakiraman, Research Director, TechVision, Frost & Sullivan

Controlling emissions has become increasingly critical in today’s world, as industries tackle the escalating environmental impact of greenhouse gases and pollutants. Amid this challenge, emissions valorization emerges as a transformative solution, offering a path to convert waste emissions into valuable resources. This not only mitigates environmental harm, but it also fosters sustainability by advancing the principles of a circular economy.

According to the International Energy Agency, the global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from energy-related industries reached 37.4 billion tons in 2023, up 1.3% from 2022 levels. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the average annual increase in global warming caused by humans was 0.2°C each decade, with an estimated 1°C increase over pre-industrial levels in 2017. It is expected that this trend will increase as industrialization gains speed across developing nations.

For companies in industries such as cement, steel, chemicals, and aviation, emissions valorization represents a promising avenue towards sustainability. By tapping into emissions as feedstock, these industries can reduce their reliance on virgin materials while simultaneously curbing their carbon footprint. This holistic approach to emissions control extends beyond CO2, encompassing a spectrum of pollutants including methane, ethane, nitrous oxide, particulate matter, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

Rising CO2 emissions and its potential as a raw material in the chemical industry

One of the most common greenhouse gas emissions is CO2; it is mostly produced by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas for industrial activities, transportation, energy production, and deforestation. Currently, demand for CO2 at a commercial scale is driven by its use for the manufacturing of urea and enhanced oil recovery (EOR), with a consumption of 130 metric tons of carbon dioxide (MtCO2) per year and 70 MtCO2 per year, respectively. While it is anticipated that demand for established CO2 use pathways will increase year over year, stakeholders are also concentrating on creating new and innovative methods for using different emissions, such as methane, ethane, nitrous oxide, particulate matter, and HFCs, to produce high-value products like chemicals and fuels.

CO2 can be used as an alternative to fossil fuels to produce high-value chemicals for a range of industries, including healthcare, food production, and processing. The conversion of CO2 into chemical intermediates requires less energy input than the conversion of CO2 to fuels. Stakeholders are therefore actively developing chemical and biological approaches that can translate their fundamental findings into industrial processes for producing chemicals using CO2 as a raw material.

Urea production and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) represent major commercial applications for CO2 utilization. However, few industrial CO2 generation sources are located close to urea production facilities and EOR sites, leading to challenges associated with transportation and storage. This is further compelling stakeholders to find emerging technologies that can convert captured CO2 into value-added chemicals that can be used across application areas.

Technology advances such as electrochemical and plasma-assisted conversion garnering attention for CO2 valorization

Due to its easy scalability and energy-efficient operation, the electrochemical technique for CO2 valorization will remain dominant. The trend is further supported by CO2 emissions valorization patent filing which accounted for more than 70% of the emission valorization technologies from 2021 to 2023. CO2 can be directly transformed into valuable products using electrochemical conversion and integration of renewable electricity, potentially increasing energy efficiency. The efficiency of bioconversion methods that use methanotrophic bacteria and direct conversion is higher; however, they are not as scalable or stable for catalysts.

Stakeholders and researchers are also focusing their attention on advanced valorization technologies, such as plasma pyrolysis, plasma gasification, and plasma catalysis, to produce intermediate chemicals like nitrogen oxide, which can be used as fertilizer, and carbon monoxide, which can be converted into methanol. For instance, Germany-based enaDyne has developed a plasma catalysis valorization technology that can effectively extract C1 to C4 hydrocarbons from CO2 and a hydrogen source, such as methane. The technology can be employed in biogas plants or industrial point sources to produce sustainable fuels and base chemicals including green methanol or formaldehyde.

Most of the valorization approaches rely on catalysts that are either highly toxic, very expensive, or necessitate harsh conditions, such as extreme pressures and temperatures, and have extended reaction times. Furthermore, the processes often require additional steps to remove the catalyst from the end products, creating the need for the development of new catalysts. Researchers globally are actively working on developing inexpensive catalysts derived from common earth-abundant materials that can offer low-cost, efficient, and sustainable large-scale production of chemicals from CO2. For instance, researchers at the Northwestern University have developed a catalyst based on copper-in-silver alloy material that can convert CO2 captured from the atmosphere into acetic acid.

Valorization of methane gaining focus

Methane is the second-most emitted pollutant after CO2. In response, stakeholders and research institutions are shifting focus toward the investigation of advanced plasma-based valorization with higher efficiency. For instance, researchers from the Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology have developed a direct conversion valorization process to produce methanol from methane by employing a plasma-assisted catalyst. The developed process uses low temperature plasma as an energy source and eliminates the need for heating and cooling processes accompanying the catalyst activation involved in methane direct conversion process. Methane and ethane are often emitted together from various sources. As a result, companies and researchers are also focusing on valorization processes that can convert both ethane and methane into hydrocarbons such as ethylene, propylene, and aromatics in a single step.

Most valorization processes related to fluorinated gases and particulate matter are still in the development phase. Existing processes currently face limitations in terms of efficiency and scalability. Academic institutions and technology developers will need to put in a significant amount of effort to scale up HFC and particulate matter valorization processes including plasma-based pyrolysis, plasma-gasification, and plasma decomposition. To scale down HFCs by 40% by 2028, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will support these developments.

Sustainability goals and economic opportunities to drive adoption of emissions valorization

The United States reaffirmed its commitment to aiding global efforts to combat climate change when it re-joined the Paris Agreement. Innovations in carbon capture and utilization technology has been stimulated by the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022, which aims to cut carbon emissions by roughly 40% by 2030. Furthermore, the Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan seeks to lower total methane emissions by 30% by 2030 compared to 2020 levels. The plan has accelerated the development and deployment of valorization technologies by facilitating strategic collaborations between government agencies, business leaders, and academic institutions.

To make European Union (EU) economy more sustainable, the European Commission introduced the EU Green Deal, a comprehensive package of policies and agreements. The aim of the EU Green Deal is to reach climate neutrality by 2050 by focusing on research and development (R&D) of emissions valorization technologies.

In March 2023, the Net Zero Industry Act was introduced by the European Commission. This act recognized CCUS (carbon capture, utilization, and storage) as a net-zero technology and underlined the need to promote the climate goals of the EU and increase CCUS manufacturing capacity. In addition, the EU Innovation Fund aims to invest approximately USD 40 billion between 2020 and 2030 towards clean technologies in Europe, granted funding to 7 CCS (carbon capture and storage) and CCU (carbon capture and utilization) projects in Bulgaria, Iceland, Poland, France, Sweden, and Germany in 2022.

With fast-growing infrastructure, Asia-Pacific, driven by China and India, leads the world in CO2 emissions from cement production. The low-scale commercialization of eFuel and eChemical manufacturing technologies is expected to cause these emissions to surpass the demand for CO2 as a raw material by more than three times by 2030. Therefore, government organizations along with chemical manufacturers across the region are actively accelerating and scaling up the commercialization of these technologies. In China and Japan, researchers are focused mostly on CO2 valorization and developing advanced electrocatalysis techniques to obtain CO2 valuable compounds like methanol and ethanol.

Sustainable fuels and low-carbon polymers to influence adoption in energy and mobility industries

Emissions valorization technologies are gaining strong traction among energy and automotive companies in the United States and China, to meet strict emission reduction objectives and environmental requirements set by international organizations. Both nations have high emission levels and ambitious emission reduction plans. To produce carbon monoxide, syngas, formic acid, and ethylene that can be used to produce essential products like fuels (methanol and synthetic gasoline) and biodegradable plastics, these nations are engaged in a fierce competition to develop emissions valorization technologies including thermocatalysis and electrocatalysis.

Electrochemical processes will be adopted most rapidly by the manufacturing and packaging industries. Key chemical firms like Dow, Evonik, and Nova Chemicals are concentrating on utilizing CO2 to produce low-carbon ethylene, which can be used to further produce polyolefins like polyethylene. The polyethylene can be used to manufacture bags, bottles, films, and containers.

For instance, in 2023, Evonik with its three other partners – Leibniz Institute for Catalysis, the Leibniz Institute for Plasma Research, and Rafflenbeul Anlagen Bau GmbH – launched a project consortium, the PlasCO2 project focusing on using CO2 as raw material for the synthesis of C4 chemicals. For this, the consortium is developing a plasma catalysis process that uses a plasma reactor to convert CO2 into these chemicals.

As fuel prices and emissions become more of a concern, the automotive industry will move toward sustainable fuels. Although the thermocatalysis method of converting CO2 into synthetic fuels is promising, it has drawbacks, including the need for an extremely stable catalyst and high temperatures. Most catalysts employed in thermocatalysis are unstable, become inactive with time, and need to be removed from final products using extra procedures. The goal of research will be to create extremely stable catalyst systems that remain active even after several cycles.

The increasing demand for sustainable materials presents a huge opportunity for medical items composed of biodegradable polymers generated by bioconversion valorization processes. The stakeholders plan to extend their reach into the medical industry by facilitating clearing of regulatory frameworks and standardizing testing methods.

Strategic collaborations and strengthening of regulatory frameworks are needed for mass scale commercialization

The future of emissions valorization holds immense potential, with opportunities for innovation and collaboration across industries. To successfully deploy these technologies, companies must invest in R&D, forge strategic partnerships, and navigate regulatory frameworks. Chemical manufacturing companies can adopt approaches that require lower energy content and yield high-value chemicals such as formic acid and acetaldehyde, which can be used to further produce value-added pharmaceutical and cosmetic chemicals to ensure better ROIs.

Collaborations with technology developers can enhance energy efficiency, reduce capital investment across the entire process, and foster new material and technology development and process improvements. Stakeholders need to investigate and develop innovative hybrid systems that combine the benefits of electrochemical- or thermo-based approaches with photocatalysis or enzymatic approaches to address the challenges associated with the existing processes.

Robust regulatory frameworks that incentivize emissions reduction and valorization will be crucial for fostering widespread adoption. Governments and regulatory bodies can play a pivotal role in creating favorable conditions for emissions valorization initiatives through incentives, subsidies, and mandates that promote sustainability and environmental responsibility.