Today’s chemicals industry is almost entirely dependent on converting petroleum and other fossil resources into the fuels and chemical building blocks that enable nearly all manufactured goods we use every day. Developing alternative pathways to producing the more than 70,000 chemical products that are currently manufactured is key to our decarbonization goals.
Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced a new initiative – the Clean Fuels & Products Shot™ – focused on developing cost-effective fuels and products from sustainable carbon sources that will achieve at least 85% lower net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2035. This is a significant challenge that requires innovative technology solutions to enable new feedstocks ranging from carbon dioxide captured from industrial processes to biomass to recycled plastics and waste materials such as solid municipal wastes and industrial waste gas.
The chemicals industry is an essential part of the American economy, contributing more than 25% to the United States’ gross domestic product (GDP), generating $517 billion annually, supporting the U.S. economy with 4.2 million jobs, and is among the largest export sectors. U.S. chemicals production has increased 13% since 2009 and is continually investing in both capital and research to support the anticipated growth. At the same time, chemicals and fuels production are, by far, the industrial subsectors responsible for the highest level of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, with over 274 million metric tons of CO2 from chemicals manufacturing and another 235 million metric tons from petroleum refining, together responsible for 37% of total U.S. industrial emissions.
The Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office (IEDO) is working to accelerate the innovation and development needed to scale technologies critical to achieving sustainable chemical manufacturing. IEDO supports a growing and diverse portfolio of the most promising research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) opportunities to develop a U.S. chemicals sector that is based on sustainable sources of carbon. These new technologies will help to reduce our reliance on petroleum feedstocks while simultaneously improving energy efficiency and reducing GHG emissions in chemicals manufacturing. IEDO efforts are focused on process innovations that will dramatically improve the cost-effectiveness of using feedstocks, like carbon dioxide, that can be sustainably harvested without increasing overall emissions.
Read more about IEDO projects accelerating progress towards the decarbonization of the chemicals industry below:
Modular Reactors for the Capture and Electroconversion of CO2 in Various Industrial Processes to Value-Added Chemicals
Led by Dr. Xiao-Dong Zhou, University of Louisiana – Lafayette (ULL)
ULL set out to develop technology that integrates the capture and use of CO2 to manufacture ethylene, the highest volume chemical manufactured, and the one responsible for the most GHG emissions. Ethylene is a key chemical feedstock, used to produce a range of products including polyethylene containers, like milk jugs, PVC pipe, antifreeze, and synthetic rubber. ULL’s innovation is a modular reactor and process which allows for low heat, no combustion synthesis of ethylene from CO2 captured at industry relevant, low concentrations. The project’s successful research has resulted in Idaho National Lab (INL) filing a patent application for the modular capture unit.
The ULL process integrates three electrochemical steps (a CO2 capture unit, an auxiliary unit, and a CO2 utilization unit) to continuously capture CO2 while producing electricity and converting the captured CO2 to ethylene. The first step chemically captures CO2 from diluted sources (i.e.: flue gas, power plant emissions, and others) using an electrochemical modular reactor to produce concentrated CO2. The auxiliary unit uses both heat from industrial sources that would otherwise be lost, and electricity produced from the carbon capture unit to help fuel the CO2 conversion. Finally, the CO2 utilization unit uses an anion exchange membrane (AEM) reactor to convert the captured CO2 to ethylene. Due to this integration of all three units, the ULL process does not require additional energy sources, resulting in room temperature ethylene synthesis that can be powered by net-zero electricity sources.
With this achievement, the technology reduces environmental impacts of industrial processes while producing a valuable chemical product (ethylene) needed to manufacture many of the products that society relies on.
Carbon Capture to Reach Carbon Neutral Vehicles: CO2-Derived Platform Molecules for Polyurethane Foams
Led by Dr. Ellen Lee, Ford Motor Company
Ford is working to decarbonize polyurethane foams by creating products from waste CO2. Over the course of this project, which kicked off in late 2022, Ford is creating two polyurethane (PU) foam formulations using polyol synthesized from recycled, captured CO2: a high resiliency foam for car seats and a dampening foam to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness. Since small chemical changes can significantly impact product quality, the project includes development of a machine learning model to optimize both polyol chemical structure and foam formulations while maintaining necessary stability and performance expectations. This model will further inform the maximum amount of CO2 which can be incorporated into foam products and paired with other sustainable feedstocks to accelerate decarbonization efforts.
This project’s technology could offset more than 126 million pounds of the current fossil-fuel- derived polyurethane foams used in the automotive industry and could impact emission reduction research for polyurethane foams used in a variety of other applications from sofas to construction insulation. Current lab-scale results have achieved high polyol conversion rates, supporting the development of a 100% renewable polyol. By the end of the project, Ford aims to produce an economically viable, sustainably sourced commercial foam product.
Read more here about ongoing work in advancing tools to measure, model, and analyze catalysts at the molecular level on timescale relevant to individual reaction steps and one-step electrochemical CO2-to-ethylene conversion.
These are just a few highlights of the exciting work IEDO is supporting to accelerate sustainable carbon sources for fuels and products. The chemicals industry is vast and complex and critically dependent on inputs that need to be sustainable to accomplish bold net-zero emission goals for the clean energy economy. IEDO will continue to drive progress in overcoming the challenges associated with the sourcing and conversion of chemical inputs that are needed to steer the chemical industry closer to economy-wide carbon neutrality. IEDO will also prioritize the innovation and development of processes to help in transforming sustainable feedstocks and scaling up technologies for commercialization.
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. Learn more about IEDO here.
 In 2020, the U.S. industrial sector emitted about 1,360 million metric tons of energy-related CO2. Within that, bulk chemicals accounted for 274 million MTCO2 and Refining accounted for 235 million MTCO2.