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Pasi Vainikka

Raw material for fuels, chemicals and food from atmospheric carbon dioxide

Text: Tarja Rannikko | Image: Teemu Leinonen | 1.12.2017

Biofuel and plastic raw materials can be produced from carbon dioxide from the air and renewable energy. In addition, world hunger could be eased by protein made from carbon dioxide.  ​

The objective of the Finnish Neo-Carbon Energy project is to build the basis of an energy system which uses renewable energy. The idea and overall strategy are in line with the emissions targets of the Paris Convention on Climate Change: zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with net emissions becoming negative until 2100.

– Rebuilding the entire energy system in the next couple of decades is a huge, if not impossible project. Through tangible technology pilots, we want to show industry and decision-makers that an energy system based on renewable energy, such as solar and wind energy, is possible, says Pasi Vainikka, Principal Scientist at VTT and the Director of the Neo-Carbon Energy project.

Research scientists involved in the Neo-Carbon Energy project concluded that even oil and food production could be electrified.

Renewable fuel and chemicals

Via the Soletair project, VTT and Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) have developed a method of producing renewable fuels and chemicals from carbon dioxide.

Piloting began in Lappeenranta in June 2017 with four integrated units: a solar power plant, equipment for extracting carbon dioxide and water from air, a hydrogen production facility based on electrolysis, and synthesis equipment for producing a compound – substituting for crude oil – from carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

A special feature of the project is the separation of carbon dioxide from air. The technology behind VTT's equipment is based on the air filtration systems used in air-raid shelters, which have been further developed by VTT. A solid absorbent is used in the Finnish equipment.

In VTT's chemical synthesis unit, carbon dioxide is catalytically combined with hydrogen to produce a hydrocarbon via so-called Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. The product obtained can be used as a raw material for fuel, for example. The greatest innovative value of the synthesis unit lies in its reactor technology, which uses a microstructure heat exchanger. It has therefore been possible to pack the synthesis unit into a container without any reduction in capacity.

– The project partner is a German spin-off established last year, for which the Soletair project is the first major industrial application, says Pekka Simell of VTT, the Principal Scientist in charge of the project's coordination.

In LUT's electrolysis unit, on the other hand, solar electricity is used for the production of hydrogen, the other raw material of the synthesis process.

– It will be interesting to see what kinds of practical questions arise with regard to issues such as data collection, integration and control, and how well we can assess what kinds of internal, interim storage will be needed, Simell wonders.

– Integration-related solutions of this kind are sought first via the project.

A number of industrial sectors will benefit from the Soletair project. For example, Finnish companies are involved in the carbon capture process and power electronics. The project is drawing the attention of companies, which are interested in a new technology for storing renewable energy. 

According to Simell, the project is at least one of the first to extract carbon dioxide directly from the air and use electrolysis to produce hydrogen for the manufacture of synthetic fuels.

– We have gained a great deal of attention internationally too, says Simell.

Soletair – a pioneer in renewable energy systems

A renewable energy system requires holistic control of a system containing considerably more functional units than the current energy system. Small power plants, heat pumps, cars, energy storage, cooling equipment, lighting and various machines and motors are becoming part of the Internet of Things.

– In many sectors, direct electrification is still regarded as difficult. For example, extremely high temperatures are needed – and a new fuel would therefore be very handy – in sectors such as air and marine transport, and in material use and steel industry processes, says Vainikka, who is the Director of the Neo Carbon Energy project and closely involved in the launch of the Soletair project.

– With respect to replacing fossil-based oil, through our Soletair pilot we wanted to tangibly demonstrate to industry and decision-makers that an energy system based on renewable energy can be built with the current technology.

Around 100 litres of fuel were produced in the trials. The next goal is to build the first version of a real, larger-scale production facility.

– One future option for Soletair fuel production would involve building single large facilities. Building small units through serial production would also be interesting. This would involve units that, at a minimum, could produce two barrels of oil per hour, so to speak, says Vainikka.

– Soletair aims to be a visionary and open up new possibilities, showing what is possible. As researchers and institutions, our task is to take the kinds of technological risks that companies cannot.

Protein without fields

Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, a Principal Scientist at VTT, is in charge of microbial process development in an Academy of Finland project coordinated by LUT, involving the growth of microbes in an aqueous solution in which the introduction of electricity separates the water into hydrogen and oxygen. The process uses carbon dioxide as a source of carbon and electricity as an energy source.

Around a third of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans is generated by food production and changes in land use. Emissions can be divided into three main sectors: livestock and the related methane emissions; nitrous oxide from nitrogen fertilisers; and changes in land use, such as the clearance of forests to create fields, during which carbon dioxide bound to trees is released into the atmosphere.

– We started with the idea of growing extremely high protein, edible microbes from carbon dioxide and electrical energy. The aim is to show that protein can be produced without creating fertiliser or greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, in places such as the desert and other extremely dry regions, human protein needs could be satisfied without irrigation, explains Pitkänen.

Although the project is still in the early stages and only one gram of protein can be produced in a period of around two weeks, it has already been shown that protein can be produced free of photosynthetic processes and thereby agriculture.

– So this is still a coffee cup-sized experiment; more processing is needed to progress to final food production, Pitkänen comments.

– To develop a production facility on this basis would require an annual output of around two million kilos, or 100 million portions, if we follow the recommendation of 20 grams of protein per portion.

The current product contains 50 percent protein and has a similar texture to dry yeast. Pitkänen is still unable to say for sure whether the final protein product will resemble pulled oats or Quorn in structure.

Part of the processed protein will become animal feed, so that the agricultural sector can focus on food production for humans. Pitkänen has good reason to be positive about the funding of the project:

– There is interest in the project. Since food concerns everyone, it is easy to explain what the project is about to funding providers.

Similar studies and experiments are being conducted elsewhere in the world. The first research of this kind was done in the 1960s, when food began to be designed for space travel. However, solar panels and electrification in general were at quite a different level to now.​

 

 

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