Bioeconomy Chemicals

Turning atmospheric CO2 problem into a carbon resource

Carbon capture and storage are a hot topic right now. There are technologies for capturing CO2 from flue gases, and VTT is currently working on various projects to solve these problems.

Written by: Pekka Pekkala 2017 — 

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Carbon has a bad reputation, and now everything must be “carbon-neutral” or “carbon-free.” But even if all global energy were produced by emission-free means, we would still need carbon. Chemicals, materials, medicine, and sectors such as aviation and maritime transportation, which will need liquid and gaseous fuels in the future, will require carbon to function.

The problem with carbon is its current source. We source it from the ground, utilize it in the form of fossil fuels, and release it into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. This drawback would disappear if we captured carbon from the air or from concentrated sources such as process gases in steel mills, paper mills, and chemical plants.

Capturing CO2 from the air or flue gases sounds like an optimal solution to various climate change–related problems. Research Professor Juha Lehtonen from VTT affirms this: “There are solutions to capture carbon dioxide from the air. The current problem with these technologies is the high price and amount of energy we need to use these methods to capture carbon. Furthermore, more energy is needed to convert carbon dioxide to value-added products such as fuels and chemicals. But luckily, the price of low-carbon energy sources such as solar and wind is plummeting, and this will fix at least one of the problems.”

Capturing CO2 from the air or flue gases sounds like an optimal solution to various climate change–related problems.

The technology Lehtonen is describing to produce chemicals from carbon dioxide can, for instance, use a bioreactor, turning microbes and hydrogen into expensive plastic precursors such as acrylates. Seven million tons of fossil-based acrylates are used yearly in paints, coatings, and diapers, costing €2 per kilo.

Water-based solution for capturing and utilizing CO2

VTT and CH-Polymers Oy have a different approach. CH-Polymers Oy is a Finnish company that supplies binders for paper and board applications, and for paint, construction, and the nonwovens industry. VTT is looking into creating environmentally sustainable, green polymers from CO2-based monomers.

As Gun Lundsten, R&D Manager of CH-Polymers Oy, says: “It is a three-year project, first starting from lab scale and finally up to industrial scale. Bio-based components are an important part of our strategy, and we are happy to work with VTT to develop them into reality.”

One can also use CO2 as a straight-up component for products such as carbonated drinks or as an actual greenhouse gas for greenhouse farming. The Finnish company CarbonReUse does exactly this, and it has created a process that cleans up flue gases with water. This chemical-free approach works especially well in food industry applications.

“This is the only water-based method for CO2 capture and utilization. We have worked with VTT to prove that it actually works. As an independent contractor, they recalculated everything and made sure our estimates were right. It had a big impact on reliability for a new company like us,” says Project Manager Ville Laitinen.

CarbonReUse, founded in 2014, is currently piloting its system and expects to have a production model ready in 2018 at the latest. Laitinen is happy how things have evolved: “Three years is a really short time for a project like this. VTT has helped us in both verifying the science but also managing and participating in EU projects—something that would have been impossible for a company of our size.”

Making edible protein from carbon capture

VTT also has a major role in an ambitious Neo-Carbon Energy (neocarbonenergy.fi) project. When CO2 conversion becomes more cost-efficient, thanks to solar power, there will be a multitude of new applications utilizing this new, environmentally sustainable way of producing carbon-based products out of—literally—thin air. In the Soletair project, production of fuel components from spheric carbon dioxide and hydrogen produced by electricity has been demonstrated.

Another more extraordinary product made from these raw materials is protein. Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, Principal Scientist at VTT, explains:

“Our laboratory-sized project proved that creating protein this way is 10 times more efficient than the common photosynthesis. Our product is very nutritious, with more than 50 percent protein and 25 percent carbohydrates. The next step is to develop the technology further and start a pilot project.”

Creating protein from CO2 would solve both the climate change problem and the food problem at the same time. This ability to see problems as business opportunities is at the core of VTT: creating technology for business and ultimately for the benefit of society.

Further information:
Research Professor Juha Lehtonen, juha.lehtonen@vtt.fi, +358504071075
Principal Scientist Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, juha-pekka.pitkanen@vtt.fi, +358403569758

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