During the ongoing COP26 event, much has been written about the financial requirements of supporting a clean energy transition, including the necessary reduction in subsidies of fossil fuels and the increase in clean energy technology investment. But what are these technologies? Three key emerging sectors that are set to play a fundamental role in the future of the global energy industry include hydrogen, carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) and bioenergy/biofuels.
Hydrogen is currently playing a leading role in the energy transition, enjoying unprecedented momentum across a range of sectors. The most in-demand area for hydrogen deployment has been in mobility, with passenger cars, vehicle refuelling stations and buses taking precedence. Electrolysers, heat and power for buildings, power generation and industry have also given rise to the widespread adoption of hydrogen.
The electrolyser is a specific technology that will significantly support decarbonisation of industry. Through a process called electrolysis, this technology allows for the production of so-called green hydrogen, hydrogen that is produced using renewable energy. This differs from brown or grey hydrogen, which is derived from hydrocarbon-rich feedstock and has a large carbon footprint.
Harnessing renewably sourced electricity, electrolysers use an electrochemical reaction to split water into its base components, hydrogen and oxygen. Although electrolysis is not a ‘new’ discovery, having been around for at least 100 years, technology is being developed that is capable of accelerating green hydrogen production such as polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) electrolysis.
One company in particular that is helping to expedite progress in the hydrogen industry is American power generation specialist, Cummins. Earlier this year, Cummins released its HyLYZER-1000, a PEM electrolyser specifically designed for large-scale hydrogen production. Operating at the company’s Quebec production facility, the HyLYZER-1000 produces up to 8.2 tonnes of green hydrogen each day, around 3,000 tonnes annually.
Hydrogen also links to another clean technology that is fundamental to support an effective energy transition, carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) and CCS. For the UK to meet its net zero target, a hydrogen economy is deemed a necessity. CCUS/CCS is seen as a major part of such an economy succeeding.
The two technologies go hand-in-hand, with green hydrogen production providing power to various processes, reducing their carbon footprint, and CCUS/CCS directly reducing atmospheric CO2.
Earlier this year energy company Climeworks opened the world’s first large-scale DAC and storage plant, Orca. The plant is capable of capturing and storing 4,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. Following capture, the CO2 is either recycled and used as a raw material or safely stored in geological formations underground.
Another major player that is committed to helping decarbonise some of the biggest emitters of harmful emissions is Carbon Clean, which uses drop-in solvent technology to absorb CO2 from smokestacks. In an interview from last year with gasworld, Aniruddha Sharma, co-founder of Carbon Clean, said, “Our patented CO2 separation solvent – known as ‘APBS’ – materially reduces the cost of carbon capture, making it commercially attractive for a wide range of applications.”
“This is because our solvents absorb up to one and a half times more CO2 than others on the market, are less volatile, and require significantly less energy. This produces lower emissions, making it easier for companies to obtain a license to operate.”
As with Orca, once captured the CO2 can be sequestered or converted into products that can be re-sold onto the market. The uses are innumerable, with the gas being utilised in the manufacture of baking soda, urea, plastics, chemicals, renewable fuels and other products.
CO2 can also be mitigated by investing into bioenergy such as biogas and biomethane. Biogas is a mixture of methane, CO2 and other gases produced by anaerobic digestion (AD) or organic matter. This gas can be captured and used in other applications. Biomethane is a near-pure source of methane produced either by upgrading biogas (a process that removes CO2) or by gasification of solid biomass followed by methanation.
Because bioenergy can produce renewable electricity and heat, it can contribute to the energy transition by essentially replacing fossil fuels. In addition, the CO2 captured during the upgrading process can be used to produce synthetic methane based on hydrogen.
Biomethane is considered key to decarbonising heavy vehicles. A report last year released by the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA) revealed that the use of biomethane as a transport fuel for HGVs would reduce well-to-wheel emissions by 80% per kilometre driven.
One company pioneering biomethane refuelling for transport is UK-based CNG Fuels (CNG). Last year the company opened its Warrington refuelling station, claimed to be the largest in Europe. The station, along with CNG’s Northampton station, is capable of refuelling more than 1,000 HGVs per day. This reflects the over-800% increase in demand of renewable biomethane since 2017.
Philip Fjeld, CEO, CNG, spoke about the future of biomethane, saying, “Using biomethane as a transport fuel is an immediate ‘no regrets’ option that not only contributes to significant cuts in GHG emissions from HGVs, but also stimulates continued growth in the UK biomethane sector.”
The ADBA report also stated that, with pollution levels exceeding WHO guidelines on 97% of UK roads, the country cannot afford to wait 15-20 years for electricity or hydrogen solutions to become ready.
Another fuel that is primed to help decarbonise the transport sector is liquefied natural gas (LNG). Although hydrogen is developing quickly and has tremendous potential for a range of applications, the infrastructure is not yet available on a large enough scale to see widespread adoption as a fuel. LNG is seen as a suitable low-carbon fuel to bridge the energy transition between fossil fuels and hydrogen.
With a strong history in LNG re-gasification development, Portuguese company PRF Gas Solutions has helped accelerate the global focus on low-carbon fuels with its LNG/CNG (compressed natural gas) mobility solutions, such as its MOOV mobile LNG refuelling station. Capable of being set up within two hours, the station features all components installed on top of a semi-trailer, with the highly manoeuvrable filling unit having the ability to be installed in various configurations.
LNG has also seen significant adoption within the maritime sector. Finnish maritime LNG pioneer Wärtsilä has worked with several companies in the recent past to decarbonise shipping efforts by providing LNG-fuelled engines, as well as multi-fuel applications. Recent developments in the industry has seen the company partner with shipbuilders to create concepts of modular LNG carriers to help decarbonise the transport of the low-carbon fuel.
Although there’s much to be done in terms of financing the energy transition and reducing fossil fuel subsidies, as discussed here, technological innovation in low-carbon clean energy sectors is accelerating at a bustling rate. Despite this, it is also evident that – to prevent developmental bottlenecks – infrastructure investment must also meet this acceleration.