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Taking carbon-recycled methanol to new heights

Taking carbon-recycled methanol to new heights
Iceland’s Carbon Recycling International (CRI) has taken carbon capture and utilization (CCU) from great depths to new heights.

The name says it all. With its proprietary emissions-to-liquids technology, Iceland’s Carbon Recycling International has taken carbon capture and utilization from great depths to new heights as Bioenergy International discovers on a trip to the “Black Meadow” just up the road from Keflavik airport.

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Carbon Recycling International (CRI) was founded in 2006 around the idea of recycling carbon dioxide emissions by utilizing it to make useful products via methanol, one of the world’s most traded chemical commodities.

Fast track to 2023, the company has not only inaugurated the world’s first large-scale carbon dioxide-to-methanol plant in China but is on track to complete a second large-scale project, also in China, that utilizes CRI’s proprietary emissions-to-liquids (ETL) technology.

Out of our main office here in Reykjavik, we work towards developing and marketing our ETL process technology for producing methanol from carbon dioxide emissions. Contrary to appearances here, things are busy for us, not least in China, remarked Ómar Sigurbjörnsson alluding to the absence of staff in the office when Bioenergy International visited – it was during the Easter break.

Well-researched

Ómar Sigurbjörnsson, Director of Marketing and Communications, CRI.

With academic degrees in chemistry, Ómar Sigurbjörnsson joined Carbon Recycling International back in 2009 as a research scientist and has since served as Director of Research and Development, and Director of Sales and Marketing before taking up his current position earlier this year as Director of Marketing and Communications.

Fair to suggest that Ómar knows his way around a methanolic discussion – be it lab results, an elevator pitch, or a board room briefing. And, the “wall of fame” in the o ffice that sports numerous business and research awards and accolades suggests a well-researched business.

The company has led- or partnered in several EU-co-financed collaborative research and development projects within the carbon capture and utilization (CCU) field including MefCO2, FReSMe, GAMER, and Circlenergy.

Methanol for transportation

Skipping forward, the first project in China is the Shunli methanol plant, a lighthouse project for energy diversification and carbon emission reduction by using recovered hydrogen and carbon dioxide gases to synthesize methanol for use as a road transportation fuel.

Located adjacent to a coke oven gas (COG) processing unit at a metallurgical coke production facility in Anyang City, Henan Province, the Shunli methanol plant is owned by CRI shareholder Geely Tech., along with Henan Schuncheng Group, Shunju, Shunfeng, and MFE Shanghai.

With an annual capacity of 110,000 tonnes of low-carbon intensity methanol, the Shunli plant is currently the world’s largest facility for the production of fuel from captured CO2 emissions.

Methanol-powered HDVs from Farizon Auto, part of the Geely New Energy Commercial Vehicle Group (photo courtesy CRI).

Furthermore, Geely Holding and Henan Shuncheng Group – both co-investors in the plant – have signed agreements for the delivery of 300 methanol-powered heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs) trucks manufactured by Farizon Auto, a part of the Geely New Energy Commercial Vehicle Group.

The first 30 trucks have already been delivered and they will be used for the operations of the Henan Shuncheng Group, powered by the locally produced, low-carbon intensity methanol.

The total investment in the Shunli plant design and equipment is US$90 million with funding raised through debt and equity financing.

Methanol-to-Olefins

Commissioned and recently inaugurated, the latter project in China is the 100,000 tonnes-per-annum methanol plant in Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province for the client Jiangsu Sailboat Petrochemicals, Co. Ltd, a subsidiary of Chinese petrochemical major Shenghong Petrochemical Group Co., Ltd.

Despite the name, the methanol will not be used by Sailboat as a marine fuel but as a chemical feedstock. The project is located at the Shenghong Petrochemical Industrial Park, one of the largest petrochemical facilities in China.

The site hosts the world’s largest methanol-to-olefins (MTO) process plant supporting the production of a wide product range of polymers and plastics using methanol as a key raw material.

Installation of the CRI methanol reactor at Jiangsu Sailboat Petrochemicals facility in Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province, China (photo courtesy CRI).

Here too the carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas streams will be sourced from other onsite chemical processes to produce the methanol. An example of a downstream derivative produced is an ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) copolymer.

EVA is an elastic and tough thermoplastic used to encapsulate photovoltaics. Once operational the ETL plant at Jiangsu Sailboat Petrochemicals will enable the switching out of a part of the external coal-based methanol supply to the own produced methanol from locally recycled carbon emissions.

This will result in a lower carbon footprint of the materials used to make photovoltaics and other end-products derived from methanol.

The George Olah Renewable Methanol plant

Getting back to how it all started, 2011 is when the aptly named George Olah Renewable Methanol plant in Svartsengi was commissioned, following years of development which included the construction of a lab-scale pilot, catalyst testing, chemical synthesis condition studies, and fundraising.

Its construction marked a significant mile-stone in the field of carbon capture and utilization as it was the first industrial-scale production facility ever built that utilized carbon dioxide waste gas as a resource for methanol production, explained Ómar Sigurbjörnsson.

Aptly named as it was the late Professor George Olah (Oláh András György), the winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and who is widely recognized in the global chemistry community as being a founding father of the methanol economy.

In particular, a paper from 2005 in which he put forward the case that methanol could be produced from hydrogen gas and industrially derived or atmospheric carbon dioxide, using energy from renewable sources to power the process.

It is fair to say that the work of George Olah and his colleagues was one of the inspirations for the founding of CRI, remarked Ómar Sigurbjörnsson.

Geothermal carbon dioxide

Thanks to the modular design of the plant and inherent scalability of the technology, production capacity was scaled from 1,300 to 4,000 tonnes per year in 2015 which translates into the recycling of 5,500 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.

So how does the ETL technology work? The production unit captures carbon dioxide from flue gas released by the adjacent Svartsengi geothermal combined heat and power (CHP) plant, borrowing as it were, the carbon dioxide molecules that otherwise would have been released into the atmosphere.

Obviously, there is no combustion flue gas in a geothermal plant, however, some of the geologically trapped CO2 gets released along with hydrogen sulfide and comes up with the steam or hot brine from the boreholes, explained Ómar Sigurbjörnsson, sensing an “I didn’t know that” moment.

Perched on a lavafield, the Svartsengi geothermal heat and power complex is in the background and the CRI plant is in the foreground (photo courtesy Gunnar Freyr Gunnarsson).

Facts

About Svartsengi

Owned and operated by HS Orka, Svartsengi (roughly translates as “Black Meadow”) was built in six stages, starting in 1974 with the final stage completed in 2008. A combined heat and power (CHP) facility the total energy capacity is 75 MWe and 190 MWth supplying all the district heating to the Suðurnes peninsula.

The process not only includes steam to drive turbines and district heating but also inadvertently gave rise to the now famous Blue Lagoon Spa thermal mineral bath complex.

The Blue Lagoon Spa uses the warm brine from the geothermal boreholes and is known for the unique combination of chemicals and microbiological algae that is said to be effective in the treatment of certain skin conditions. The power station campus also houses an R&D facility dedicated to developing healthcare products based on the unique mud and algae found on site.

The carbon dioxide is purified to make it suitable for downstream methanol synthesis.

Following adequate compression, the synthesis gas containing hydrogen, in this case, the hydrogen is generated onsite by the electrolysis of water, and the carbon dioxide is catalytically reacted in a proprietary catalytic conversion unit to form crude methanol, a mixture of methanol and water, at elevated temperature and pressure.

Purification and water removal are done by distillation in the last process module using geothermal steam.

Here at Svartsengi, the hydrogen is generated onsite by electrolysis but in the two Chinese projects, the hydrogen is available as a by-product gas stream. The catalytic conversion reaction is highly exothermic and heat can be recovered from the reactor to supply steam to the distillation unit, commented Ómar Sigurbjörnsson.

The patented production process creates no toxic by-products as the sole chemical released is oxygen following the electrolysis process and treated water from distillation.

An independent audit performed by SGS Germany using a protocol established by the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) certifies that methanol from the plant can achieve up to 90 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions than the use of a comparable amount of fossil fuels.

Flexible, scalable, and energy efficient

While our technology can work with nearly any source of carbon dioxide and hydrogen, it is the cost of energy or the cost of hydrogen that is the main determining factor regarding the cost competitiveness of a given project. The source of the hydrogen determines also what carbon emission savings can be achieved and in what market it is competing. There are different price levels and there are areas where this is already commercially viable, stated Ómar Sigurbjörnsson.

The George Olah Renewable Methanol plant.

A key advantage of the process itself is that it dynamically adjusts to the availability of electricity or hydrogen with high turndown and ramp-up capability and precise adjustment of the CO2:H2 ratio without reforming equipment.

This load following operational flexibility enables project viability using highly variable renewable electricity sources while providing energy storage capability, in the form of liquid methanol, to the power grid.

Furthermore, the efficient conversion eliminates surplus streams and has no additional CO2 emissions.

The technology is scalable with a single standardized reactor design, and modular skid-based equipment.

Enter Vulcanol and Geely

Branded “Vulcanol”, the renewable electro-methanol (e-methanol) produced at CRI’s George Olah plant was initially targeted toward the domestic transportation sector.

Both Methanex, the world’s largest methanol producer, and Geely, the Chinese vehicle major joined as strategic investors, and in 2016, following the plant’s capacity expansion, Geely started methanol passenger car trials in Iceland.

We managed to directly import the first methanol-powered Geely cars to Europe for the trials. I can say that we learned an awful lot about administrative, bureaucratic, and legal red tape surrounding the introduction of a “new” type of fuel, recounted Ómar Sigurbjörnsson.

For example, Iceland has no oil refining, blending, or petrochemical industry. Instead, transportation- and heating fuels are imported ready blended for usage.

We have been supplying Vulcanol to European biodiesel producers and the chemical industry looking to reduce the carbon footprint of their products, said Ómar Sigurbjörnsson.

Imported directly for trials in 2016, the “Vulcanol” powered Geely company car is still going strong.

Served its purpose

While kept in operational order for campaigns, test volumes, and research purposes, the George Olah plant has in fact served its main purpose as a commercial demonstration plant.

The plant in Svartsengi is a prototype, an important showcase for us, and can serve as a future technology development platform. We could expand the plant but it would require additional investment and energy supply. We have now larger reference plants in operation so we have simply prioritized other opportunities and investments, said Ómar Sigurbjörnsson.

First European project on the horizon?

We have changed our business focus from an e-methanol producer to a technology company for providing specialized engineering services and equipment. Our business is designing, licensing, and selling our proprietary ETL process technology to other actors who want to produce green or low-carbon methanol, said Ómar Sigurbjörnsson referring to the two Chinese projects as cases in point.

And when might one see the first CRI “Vulcanol” type of project in Europe, especially given the vurm for methanol as a maritime fuel?

Bound by NDAs Ómar Sigurbjörnsson gracefully declined to comment other than to refer to previously announced projects in the public domain such as the Finnfjord project in Norway – a commercial-scale 100,000 tonne per annum capacity e-methanol plant project being developed by CRI with Statkraft as a partner.

Planned to be built adjacent to a Finnfjord ferrosilicon plant, it would use CRI’s ETL technology to convert CO2 emissions from the ferrosilicon plant and hydrogen from electrolysis to produce e-methanol for fuel and chemical applications.

If realised it would be the largest-of-its-kind facility in Europe. An investment decision is expected in 2024.

Regardless of whether Finnfjord becomes a go or not, it is clear that CRI has already taken carbon-recycled methanol from great depths to new heights in line with the (green) methanol economy as envisioned by the late George Olah.

This article was first published in Bioenergy International no. 4-2023. Note that as a magazine subscriber, you get access to the e-magazine and articles like this on the Bioenergy International App before the print edition reaches your desk!

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