Why Not Use Cheap Renewable Electrons to Create Industry’s Building Blocks?

By Adam Bratis, Associate Laboratory Director, National Renewable Energy Laboratory Associate Director

We’re becoming a society in which electricity is going to be cheaper and more abundant. Prices continue to drop as technologies keep getting better. A lot of that is driven by plentiful wind energy, solar power, and natural gas.

In this rapidly changing energy world, we should wonder: How can abundant, clean electricity affect the industrial sector and the way we manufacture things?

At the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, that is one question we’re asking to guide our research during the next 10 years. And our answer is a key research area we call “Electrons to Molecules” — a way to take advantage of low-cost electricity to create the building blocks used in the materials we make. This is one of three areas of opportunity under our long-term vision.

Here’s why it is important now. Previously, electricity was produced from energy-dense fossil fuels. Unfortunately, these sources emit carbon dioxide at a variety of stages into the environment. Societies around the globe have become more conscious of greenhouse gas emissions, and they seek alternatives. Today, the power-generation sector sees greater than 95% of new installed capacity in the United States coming from wind, solar, or natural gas. Industry is free to seek new ways to leverage this form of renewable energy. The biggest example is the re-adoption of electric vehicles.

How could this impact industry?

In our focus on Electrons to Molecules, we are considering how industry can best draw upon these renewably generated resources. There are a number of pathways to take abundant electricity and combine it with small waste gases — such as carbon dioxide, water, or nitrogen — and form new molecules that then are usable to make materials and goods. This can happen by:

· Using electricity to split water and make hydrogen for many industrial uses. NREL is part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hydrogen @ Scale initiative, which is finding better ways to employ electrolysis of water. By passage of an electric current, researchers can break or “split” water into its components of hydrogen and oxygen. Once the lab extracts hydrogen gas, it is possible to make all kinds of things: transportation fuel, upgrade hydrocarbons in a refinery to make fuels, or deploy hydrogen for energy storage. NREL already has spent a decade finding new ways to improve electrolysis, which will lead to cheaper hydrogen and support a hydrogen economy.

· Reducing carbon dioxide via the green route to “renewable methane” for many industrial uses. Just like the process of electrolysis I just mentioned, researchers can undertake electrocatalysis, a process that employs electrons to refine carbon dioxide to methane. Methane can go directly into a gas pipeline. We, along with the Department of Energy and SoCal Gas (the nation’s largest natural gas distribution utility), have a pilot project on such conversion underway. Although the United States has plenty of natural gas, there’s already a commercial market for renewable natural gas in places such as Europe and California. Utilities will pay a premium for this product in return for renewable energy tax credits.

· Reducing carbon dioxide to some reactive intermediate (e.g., syngas, formate, or methanol) and then building carbon–carbon bonds through traditional biology or catalysis. This process allows us to make all sorts of organic chemicals and polymers. Today, a cornucopia of products emerges from carbon-carbon bonded material in refineries. Typically, manufacturers rely on crude oil as the carbon source — taking carbons strung together and treating them with heat to make something new.

· Beyond carbon dioxide, taking electricity to reduce other small molecules and build chemical bonds. This effort would allow production of ammonia from nitrogen for fertilizer and other uses.

Almost every product we consume comes from our current industrial practices that involve fossil fuels as both energy and carbon sources and result in the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. At NREL, we are asking ourselves if a future state of industrial manufacturing can look very different — one that uss green electricity as its energy source and carbon dioxide as its carbon source. This will give us the ability to continue making the products we depend on. We will be doing so in a manner that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere instead of emitting it — and takes advantage of the sun and the wind to be the driving energy sources.

Because of this promise, industry’s interest in carbon dioxide capture and conversion is growing. This route isn’t easy to perfect — such transformations are complicated research. But in this new era, directing cheaper electrons — the ones captured from wind and sun — into new pathways holds almost unlimited promise of creating fossil-fuel building blocks. NREL’s Electrons to Molecules research will transform industry.

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