In order to achieve a fossil-free production of fuels and chemicals, catalysis methods that convert the sun’s energy into chemical processes must be made more efficient.
Professor Jens Nørskov heads the consortium behind Energy-X, which has a participation of a total of 13 European universities and research institutions as well as 29 large companies. The project focuses on solving one of the greatest challenges of our time, namely to provide sufficient energy and materials for the earth’s growing population, while reducing both the environmental footprint and the effects on the climate.
Here he outlines what it takes to get green, liquid fuels.
1. Ensuring a cheap solution
We can already make green fuels using electrochemical and thermochemical processes – the problem is it is too expensive. This is partly because the equipment available is relatively expensive and partly because there are excessive energy losses in the processes themselves. In other words, we are using too much energy to produce fossil-free fuels.
Although the energy comes from solar and wind, we are still talking about heavy losses. Some countries may say that they can afford to pay two to three times more for a litre of fuel, but we cannot ask developing countries seeking to reach the same standard of living as ours to pay as much.
We ourselves have achieved our standard of living by using the cheapest possible energy—namely oil, coal, and gas.
2. New catalysts needed
Catalysts are materials that drive the chemical reaction we use to produce liquid green fuels. We already have a number of catalysts, but we need to develop new and much better ones, so that the processes become more efficient. It is also important that the catalysts are extracted from materials that are not based on rare elements which will drive up the cost of the whole solution.
In order to find new catalysts, we need to conduct research on new materials all the way down to atomic level.
3. We need to scale up
The global consumption of liquid fuels is absolutely enormous. We need to become better at upscaling what works in the laboratories, as the technology must be implemented at the terawatt level. We need to be able to scale up production massively to meet global energy demands.
4. Need for massive investment
Massive investment in research is needed if we are to succeed in making the electrochemical and thermochemical production of green liquid fuels more cost-effective. Such investment could result in the necessary research breakthroughs, including the discovery of new catalysts.
Time is of the essence and we need to find ways to accelerate the development and implementation of new technologies—e.g. through new partnerships between universities and industry. We need to bring together the full power of global cooperation.