Why Industrial Gases to Chemicals? Why a circular carbon future?

As the Circular Economy Innovation Network comes to a close, our industry expert Michael Burnett, Knowledge Transfer Manager for Process Manufacturing, assesses activities in the industrial gases to chemicals challenge community.

Posted on: 16/04/2024

The transition of the chemical sector away from virgin fossil carbon and towards a circular carbon future is an area the Chemistry and Industrial Biotechnology team have been working on for a number of years. The output from our earlier work on Decarbonisation of chemicals, Catalysis & net zero, and Sustainable Aviation Fuel identifies opportunities of using Carbon Capture and Utilisation coupled with renewable energy, low carbon hydrogen and Power-2-X technologies to manufacture chemicals in the UK with a lower carbon footprint.

Our recent Industrial Gases to Chemicals article highlights the work of the Renewable Carbon Initiative which predicts a significant growth in the demand for carbon feedstocks and recognises the need for Carbon Capture and Utilisation. With UK chemical manufacturing having an estimated GVA of £11 billion transitioning to alternative feedstocks is essential to maintain and grow this sector. With UK Manufacturing and construction emitted 12% (66Mt) of CO2eq in 2018, and through a circular carbon approach we can take a step towards a circular carbon economy and produce higher-value, low carbon products and reduce our reliance on virgin carbon feedstocks.

Within the UK there has already been important research and development being undertaken in CCU for chemicals, such as the work of the UKRI Nicer CircChem centre, The Carbon Recycling Network, Scotchem, RICE initiative, IDRIC, SWIC, SCI SMCP and others. This has been supported by an increasing drive towards more sustainable chemicals with public commitments being made by companies such as Unilever and Croda. However, there is significantly more that needs to be done to develop this nascent approach for alternative supply chains within the UK. This will require connecting industry stakeholders from across the value chain to identify the cross-sector opportunities and challenges.

What needs to change to make this a commercial reality?

As part of the Innovate UK Circular Economy Innovation Network we have worked collaboratively with the community to develop an Industrial Waste Gases to Chemicals action plan. There is no single, quick, and easy solution and replacing virgin fossil feedstocks with alternative feedstocks to produce chemicals is a huge task. Utilising carbon from industrial gases is one option, and under the pillars of the Circular Economy Innovation Network, the community identified the following needs to accelerate innovation for industrial clusters and dispersed sites:

Circular Design: We need to understand the full range of current and future chemical and chemical intermediates we make within the UK and the resources needed. By understanding this we can establish the amount of carbon, hydrogen, electrons, and other resources that will be required to manufacture chemicals in the UK. This will enable us to identify the key opportunities to create scalable circular supply chains.

Circular Business: We need data to identify key opportunities where we can begin to generate the justifications needed for new circular and sustainable business models that establish the economic, environmental, and social case for manufacturing chemicals in the UK.

Circular Recovery: We need to see more collaborative projects that look at the specific opportunity for deploying Carbon Capture and Utilisation within industrial clusters and dispersed sites. We need to accelerate the research, development, and deployment of not only the technology to capture carbon but also in the chemical transformation technologies at the relevant scales to deliver the UK circular business models to recover the value from the carbon.

In addition to the pillars, the community also identified the need for a Government Framework for Circularity, where we need to stimulate the transition to a UK circular economy. By providing input into policy, standards, and regulation, we can support the drive towards behavioural changes regarding the use of waste carbon feedstocks and making long term investment in the UK attractive.

How do we transition to capturing carbon for chemicals?

Capturing and utilising carbon at scale is not new; however, achieving this across the UK at a multitude of locations and at the relevant scale for the chemical sector to make economic, environmental, and social sense, remains a significant challenge. Innovations in Carbon Capture and Utilisation need to be developed with a systems approach considering real world process conditions, from individual unit operation design through to complete processes. It will require new collaborations to be formed along the value chain to develop and establish technically and commercially viable routes from feedstock (quality and quantity) through to final product. We highlighted the £5.4 million Flue2Chem project funded by Innovate UK’s Transforming Foundation Industries challenge in our recent article as a notable example of such a collaboration.

Through our work with the community, it is clear that more than one approach is required as we displace the existing integrated supply chains based on virgin fossil carbon. We have an opportunity to deploy this technology to strategically take advantage of national and regional strengths to achieve the right balance of resource use and products manufactured. To realise this opportunity, we will need to consider the resource demands from other sectors, such as food and drink, marine, aviation and materials who are needing a source of carbon.

The action plan has been a step in the right direction in strengthening how we think of the circular economy. However, with several actions in the plan being relevant to challenges beyond Carbon Capture and Utilisation, this work is being incorporated into a broader strategic plan. The outputs from the Industrial Gases to Chemicals plan, the previous work of the Chemistry and Industrial Biotechnology Team, and the work of other key stakeholders in the sector has actively informed the scope of a new Innovate UK funded study currently underway on Sustainable Hydrocarbons for the UK Chemicals Industry. The study, which will be available later in 2024, is taking this wider picture view and is building on all the important outputs that have been generated so far by the community.

With the demand for sustainable chemicals increasing, there is a need for chemical pathways from carbon dioxide that provides access to key platform chemicals and those that provide a direct route to functional molecules. Innovate UK will continue to champion the move towards a circular carbon future and the acceleration of innovation to defossilise the chemicals sector using alternative feedstocks. If you are interested in learning more about this area of innovation, then please reach out to me.

Michael Burnett

Our Expert

Michael Burnett

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Related programme

Circular Economy Innovation Network

Circular Economy Innovation Network

The Circular Economy Innovation Network aimed to enable stronger, more resilient industries working together, connecting, collaborating, and sharing experiences to achieve Net Zero through circular innovation.


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