Sustainable Fuels, Chemicals and Polymers from Sun and CO2

Big visions – but also big potential

Deutsche Version:

The usage of carbon dioxide, among experts referred to as “Carbon Capture & Utilization (CCU)”, is gaining momentum. These days several technologies are far advanced and allow production on an industrial scale in the immediate future.

170 experts from 25 countries met at the end of September in Essen (Germany) for the largest European conference in 2015 about the usage of CO2 with the help of renewable energies, the “4th Conference on Carbon Dioxide as Feedstock for Fuels, Chemistry and Polymers”.

Shortly summarized the most important outcomes

The usage of CO2 with renewable energy has very high potential.
Some CCU technologies are already far developed and upscaling to industrial scale is lining up; other technologies are still in the laboratory or pilot scale.
Animatedly discussed was the right way of implementation, are research programs enough or are specific market incentives necessary?
A particular opportunity provides the aviation sector, which could decrease its CO2 emission substantially by making use of solar aviation fuels.

speakers and chair woman: Andreas Pilzecker, Søren Bøwadt (European Commission), Dr. Lothar Mennicken (BMBF), Michael Carus (nova-Institute), Dr. Martin Lange (UBA), Kathryn Sheridan (Sustainability Consult) (v.l.t.r.) (source: nova)
speakers and chair woman: Andreas Pilzecker, Søren Bøwadt (European Commission), Dr. Lothar Mennicken (BMBF), Michael Carus (nova-Institute), Dr. Martin Lange (UBA), Kathryn Sheridan (Sustainability Consult) (v.l.t.r.) (source: nova)

Big visions – but also big potential

“The complete needs of energy sources and platform chemicals could basically be sustainable and long-term covered with renewable energies and CCU technologies”, as Michael Carus, physicist and managing director of the event’s organizer nova-Institute, says. He demonstrated that even with consideration of grid and storage construction in 2050, 5 to 10% of the world’s desert area would be enough to cover the global energy demand and also the complete carbon needs of the chemical and plastic industry. “This implies,” says Carus,”that it is primarily a question of the right political guidance and of investments, whether we will have raw material shortage in the future or not.”

It is also important “to show society and politics a positive vision, to encourage them to break new ground.” This perspective found a lot of support, but also was viewed critically during the lively discussions. Katy Armstrong (UK) from the international CO2Chem network and the European research project SCOT (Smart CO2 Transformation) warned against exaggerated expectations. Currently much would be achieved, if a pilot project could provide a local population with wind power and CCU fuels.

Providing political incentives?

There were long discussions on how the implementation of CCU plants could and should be promoted. Even though many technologies are already well on their way and an upscale to industrial scale wouldn’t bring a lot of risks, the CCU fuels and platform chemicals remain around factor 2 to 3 times more expensive than their fossil competition. Therefore, they show really low carbon footprints after first life cycle assessments, clearly less than even the best biofuels. So how can you bring the new technologies to the market? Is further research enough, which is now promoted with several tenders throughout Europe? Do politics have to provide market incentives? When will it be the right timing and how should it look?

Solar aviation fuels as royal road?

Particularly intense was discussed whether a mandatory addition of for example 5% of CCU based kerosene in aviation fuel would be a good appliance. The aviation industry shows increasing CO2 emissions and has not found a way to decrease them yet. Synthetic kerosene from renewable energies and CO2 would be ideal for a reduction due to its low carbon footprint and the costs for a low admixture could be neglected. However, it would be a big step forward for the implementation of these new technologies.

But also other steps could increase the competitiveness of CCU fuels: Participants also pointed out that according to OECD and IEA 2013 fossil energy receive worldwide subsidies of about $ 548 billion to synthetically keep down the costs for the end consumer – more than half of it goes to oil products. Moreover, the aviation industry does not pay taxes on fossil kerosene throughout the world.

The participants called upon politicians to create the right market incentives. The European commission took a first step towards this direction with the last reform of the “Renewable Energy directive (RED)” and partially equated CCU fuels with biofuels, as Andreas Pilzecker (DG Climate) reports from Brussels.

Leading nations, companies and CCU technologies

Also interesting to see which countries are leading in CCU research: On Iceland, the first semi-commercial plant is running, producing CO2-based methanol with geothermal energy. Most of the pilot plants for the so-called “power-to-gas” or “power-to-fuel” technologies are located in Germany or the USA. The USA, Germany and Great Britain are leading in research, whereas a delegation from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of South Africa demonstrated, which comprehensive concepts for research and implementation of a solar- and wind-based CCU industry are being developed there. The country can draw on its long experience with Fischer-Tropsch processes using coal and natural gas as chemical raw material, in which the coal is liquefied and used in several fractions. Leading in the usage of CO2 for production of CO2-based polymers is the company Covestro (formerly Bayer Material Science), which will be the first to produce CO2-based polyurethane foams in Dormagen (Germany) in 2016. This should be the start for a new product family which is based on CO2-based polyols and polymers.

Especially far advanced are CCU systems, which generate hydrogen from water with renewable energy via electrolysis and then use hydrogen combined with CO2 to produce a variety of synthetic fuels and platform chemicals through Fischer-Tropsch processes. This includes for example the technologies by the German company sunfire and the Israeli NewCO2Fuels. In use are also plants based on modified cyanobacteria for fuel production, which, among others, the company Joule from the USA is building. The automotive company AUDI shows up frequently in this context, which is testing a variety of technologies for the production of e-gas, e-fuels and e-ethanol and which is also trying out synthetic fuels for their vehicles.

Artificial photosynthesis

Two scientists from the USA presented technologies at the research stage, which should make it possible to manufacture hydrogen with renewable energies for a low price in the long-term. This plays a decisive role for the use of usage of CO2, especially in terms of cost. In most of the CCU technologies hydrogen is used to reduce the CO2 so it can be reused. More than 80% of the costs for CO2-based fuels and chemicals come from hydrogen. To produce it with lower costs is therefore a key-technology.

Prof. Dr. Dunwei Wang from Boston College presented his newest work on cheap low-cost metallic catalysts, which should enable an artificial photosynthesis with high efficiency levels. Prof. Dr. Nathan Lewis from Joint Centre for Artificial Photosynthesis developed so-called “silicon microwires”, which can split water directly into hydrogen and oxygen with the use of sunlight. Those polymer mats can be rolled out in the same way as artificial turf and produce hydrogen decentralized from sunlight and humidity. In a second step they can even produce fuels with CO2 from the air. That way solar energy could be harvested decentralized, transformed into fuels and stored – with a high energy density and the possibility of long-term storage. The question is, when will those technologies be ready for the market?

Michael Carus concluded his visionary speech about the potential of solar and CCU technologies with the sentence: “Renewable energies and CCU mean nothing less than a sustainability revolution for all energy and raw material supply.”

Only that politicians, NGOs and society have to realize it!


All of the presentations will soon be available at

The conference was under the patronage of Svenja Schulze, Minister of Innovation, Science and Research of the German State of North Rhine-Westphalia.

nova-Institute thanks the Premium-Partner EnergieAgentur.NRW, such as all partners and media partners for their support.


nova-Institut GmbH, press release, 2015-10-12.


Audi AG
CO2Chem Network
Covestro AG
European Commission
GP Joule
Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP)
nova-Institut GmbH
South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)


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