January 6, 2021 | Jim Lane
By Pierroberto Folgiero, Maire Tecnimont Group’s and NextChem’s CEO
Special to The Digest
Global emissions will have to decrease very quickly, in order to match 2050 carbon neutrality goals, and the transportation sector is one of the most likely contributors to the targets, being the top contributor to GHG emissions production. The future of mobility is mobile, one could say: everything is going to change in the next years in the frame of sustainable mobility: range and kind of feedstocks, technologies for fuels production, fuels distribution infrastructures, design and structure of vehicles, transportation infrastructures, policies, taxation and life styles.
There are a few milestones that will drive the transformation:
- electrification is not the sole choice and renewable source capability is somehow still limited,
- hydrogen is the best-loved trend but it will take time and money to be developed,
- bio-feedstocks for bio-fuels are limited, locally-based and they should not compete with the production of food to feed the planet population,
- bio-economy should be mostly circular and for this reason waste and biomass will be considered more and more valuable: the oil of the third millennium,
- technological development is the key for the energy transition in each of these milestones.
The focus of the transition is to substitute carbon in any process. Chemical engineering is a key enabler of this challenge. We must search carbon molecules somewhere else but not in fossil sources. But where are these carbon molecules? The answer is really simple: they are everywhere. They are in every single element of our daily life, both in nature and in the synthetic products of our modern industry. What we still call ‘waste’, is a treasure of carbon molecules that can be regenerated. In NextChem we call this “Waste chemistry”. We create new molecules by chemical conversion of waste, with a process that produces a synthetic gas that is the base to produce new fuels like hydrogen, methanol, ethanol, ammonia. We call these “circular molecules”, because they come from a circular process, that increases the rates of recycling of non-recyclable plastics and dry waste that would be otherwise either burned or disposed in landfills. The fuels coming from this process have a lower carbon intensity than the fossil-based ones, they are recycled carbon fuels and for a portion they are considered ‘advanced’, with a market premium when used in substitution of the traditional fossil fuels.
Waste chemistry is one of the trends of green chemistry, the chemistry of the future. The second trend is Bio-chemistry. We can replace fossil feedstocks for fuels with residues of agriculture, with residual vegetable oils and fats of our food life-cycle, with ligno-cellulosic waste. Also in this case we can make a valuable use of the waste as resource and the results are once more “circular molecules”, which have a double environmental benefit, because they reduce the disposal of waste and increase its recycling, helping so far the circular economy new paradigm and, on the other hand, they allow to produce biofuels that necessary to the transition to a sustainable mobility.
The third trend of the green chemistry is Electro-chemistry, that is the use of electricity to produce chemicals. From what? For example, from water. This is the case of electrolysis to produce hydrogen, and when electricity is coming from renewable sources, we then produce ‘green hydrogen’. Catching energy from sun or wind, using it for a chemical process to obtain green hydrogen from water, and then using green hydrogen to feed green industrial processes or transportation is a long story and it costs money. But the cost of renewables will decrease by the increase in capacity, the costs of industrialization will also improve and the States’ support will have to do the rest. The switch to an hydrogen economy is a matter of great transformation of business models and infrastructures and there is only one way to do it: by investing in strong projects, with solid and ready technologies and affordable players.
In Maire Tecnimont’s NextChem we are improving a portfolio of technologies capable to afford all these industrial challenges in an economically sustainable way, with solid and profitable business models, also thanks to the long, wide and worldwide experience of our Group in Engineering, Procurement and Construction. Waste chemistry, bio-chemistry and electro-chemistry: these are the paths for the decarbonization of transportation sector as also of other high carbon intensity industrial processes, like oil refineries, steel industry, glass industries and many others. We all are inside and protagonists of the fourth green industrial revolution – the first one was the invention of engines, the second one was the invention of the production chain, the third one was the digitalization of processes – and there is nothing better than putting our intelligence and capabilities to serve this ambitious goal.
NextChem is Maire Tecnimont’s subsidiary dedicated to the technologies for the energy transition. More information here.