Researchers and industry partners are making significant strides to improve energy efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint for chemical manufacturing of essential products, like ethylene. Ethylene is a chemical used to make plastics and textiles along with car parts, mattresses, milk jugs, medical devices and more. It is the largest commodity chemical produced in the United States and vital to our economy. However, the current process for producing ethylene is incredibly energy intensive, emitting the greatest volume of CO2 emissions from any chemical produced in the United States and is a major challenge for industrial decarbonization.
Read how teams are tackling this challenge by developing more advanced catalysts and reactors for the manufacturing of ethylene. These teams are participating in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office’s (IEDO) Dynamic Catalysts Science (DCS) program that focuses on bringing advanced reaction kinetics modeling computational tools from national laboratories and academia to industry.
DIAdEM in the Rough: Advancing Tools to Understand Catalysts
As the nation continues on the pathway to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% by 2030, near-term reductions in carbon emissions can come from catalysts facilitating more energy efficient and selective production of building block chemicals. Using a catalyst leads to more energy-efficient production of chemicals like ethylene that allow the reactions to proceed at faster rates with lower temperatures. To achieve this, the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) team is advancing tools to measure, model, and analyze catalysts at the molecular level on timescale relevant to individual reaction steps. Researchers hope that filling in these knowledge gaps will lead to innovations that improve catalyst function.
In the Dynamics at the Interface for Advancing Efficient Manufacturing (DIAdEM) project, the INL team developed new methods to understand underlying processes occurring on catalysts for ethylene production. The team advanced the capabilities of the Temporal Analysis of Product (TAP) reactor, a tool used to identify the individual steps of chemical reactions working together on industrial catalysts with high time resolution. In chemicals manufacturing, catalysts are a pervasive underlying technology, but understanding the activity of the catalysts on a molecular level is challenging. The TAP reactor helps optimize the process in developing more efficient catalysts. Less than 20 TAP instruments exist in the world, and only three, including the two systems at INL, are available in the United States. During the DIAdEM project, INL developed new catalyst formulations for ethylene production producing more stable catalysts and increased product yield by 85%.
The TAP reactor has proven to be immensely valuable tool for chemical manufacturing. It gives researchers a detailed understanding of the individual steps of the chemical reactions occurring on a complex industrial catalyst, so that they can rationally design better catalysts. Chemical manufacturing companies can benefit from the TAP tool because it gives them access to new information and previously unattainable insights that allow them to produce targeted chemicals more effectively.
The INL-led project brought together Wayne State University (WSU) and Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT). The success of the project was demonstrated in multiple publications, making it broadly accessible to the research and industrial communities.
INL continues to advance the TAP reactor to understand catalysts activity in greater detail through collaboration with industry, academic, and national laboratory partners including National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), University of Houston (UH), Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT) and Clariant Corporation through the Catalyst Evaluation for Deactivation and Remediation (CEDAR) project. The team is now developing the tools to understand how the performance of catalysts degrade over time. Understanding the underlying cause of deactivation will allow industry to design new catalysts that are more robust to change and can deliver advanced performance for longer periods of time.
Decarbonizing Chemical Manufacturing: One-Step Electrochemical CO2-to-Ethylene Conversion
In California, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), with TotalEnergies SE, a major energy company, and Twelve, a startup company, teamed up to find new ways to develop a less energy-intensive process for producing ethylene.
The team brings together leaders in electrochemical reactors, electrochemical reactor design, catalyst engineering, electrolyzer development, and a major ethylene producer. They created a system that recycles CO2 using a catalyst and electricity from renewable sources – transforming a harmful waste product into a high-commodity chemical with a global value of $162.5 billion.  This is called one-step electrochemical CO2-to-ethylene conversion. Since one-step electrochemical CO2-to-ethylene conversion can be driven by renewable sources like wind and solar, it enables flexible, decentralized chemical manufacturing and produces far fewer carbon dioxide emissions than conventional ethylene manufacturing.
LLNL provided the research capabilities needed to test and optimize the CO2-to-ethylene conversion process. Twelve joined the project with its breakthrough industrial electrolyzer, the device where the electrochemical reaction takes place. Finally, TotalEnergies brought the technology intelligence, experience and industrial perspective needed to scale up the technology for commercial development.
“Our team is enthusiastic that we observed 100% agreement between the predicted and measured catalyst performance in terms of ethylene selectivity,” said Juergen Biener, the project’s principal investigator. “This demonstrates that LLNL’s rational catalyst design platform has great potential to accelerate the development of electrochemical catalysts.”
Through virtual experiments and data analysis, the team designed an efficient and cost-effective copper-based catalyst that can be incorporated into Twelve’s industrial electrolyzer. During testing, this catalyst resulted in a 15% improvement in energy efficiency. The catalyst also increased the chemical reaction’s selectivity and produced far less unwanted byproduct throughout the process.
“This project was an important opportunity for us to gain unique scientific insight into catalyst design by working with LLNL. This understanding is pivotal as we push forward commercial development,” said Kendra Kuhl, CTO of Twelve. Shaffiq Jaffer, VP Corporate Science and Technology Projects of TotalEnergies SE adds: “TotalEnergies is very proud of the progress made through the joint project. These results are critical to help achieve the scalability, reliability, and durability of carbon dioxide electroconversion and achieve TotalEnergies’ ambition of net zero emissions.”
LLNL continues to work with industry partners including Siemens Energy, Inc. and TotalEnergies SE to address key knowledge gaps in developing and deploying industrial-scale CO2 electrolyzers funded through a 2022 funding opportunity from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Program.
Projects that leverage national laboratory capabilities like INL’s TAP reactor and LLNL’s materials development expertise for industry collaboration are a great way to meet our carbon and energy challenges by and not only fostering innovation, but powering innovation.
The Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office (IEDO) supports innovation in technologies and the adoption of practices to enable the industrial sector to cost-effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. IEDO has three major program teams: energy and emissions intensive industries, cross-sector technologies, and technical assistance and workforce development. These programs are working toward decarbonizing the industrial sector.
Read more about IEDO here.