The Renewable Gas Ask : Part G

I asked a proper chemist about my table of synthetic fuels (synfuels). They said something to the effect that they were in two minds about the use of carbon in fuels, and that they thought it was a shame to put so much effort into synthesising molecules, only to burn them. On the other hand, they were perfectly happy with synthesised molecules being used as raw materials for chemical engineering.

I have encountered the expression of similar ideas before, and I think it partly results from a well-established paradigm that considers chemical engineering somewhat apart from energy engineering. The fact of the matter is that molecules are being restructured all the time, everywhere in the vast and sprawling petroleum- and Natural Gas-based energy system, as well as in Big Chemistry.

These days, there are very few things that happen at oil refineries that don’t involve altering molecules; including the use of combustion and gasification to deal with waste disposal, and provide on-site energy. Synthesis is part of the bedrock and fabric of fuel production – it’s not a step too alien.

My reply was basically to say that I understood the chemist’s reticence about maintaining the use of carbon in the new fuels of the Energy Transition. It would make a lot of sense to jump straight to a Hydrogen-and-Renewable-Power Economy. But, I said, as there are a billion Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) on the road around the world, and this is going to be that case for at least the next couple of decades, we need to continue to provide liquid fuels, and that this can be most easily done using carbon-based molecules, as they naturally have higher boiling points.

As for the implication that there is a high cost and high inefficiency in synthesising molecules for use as road/rail/ship/plane fuel, that ain’t necessarily so. Like all things, it will depend on concentrating effort in improving processes and equipment. Task forces. Investment. Focus.

Basically, as we are stuck with needing to provide liquid carbon-based drive for the global fleet for decades to come, and yet we need to undergo an Energy Transition to much lower net emissions fuels, we have two main choices for an approach :-

1.   Decomposition

Decomposition of biomass can be done in a range of biological and thermochemical ways, some of which result in complex hydrocarbon/carbohydrate molecules; and others of which produce simple compounds (usually gases) that would need synthesis to make them into appropriate liquid fuels.

Where biomass can be decomposed directly to liquid fuels, there are often problems arising from contaminants and unwanted by-products. This sometimes gives a poor “atom economy”, and will lead to continuing criticism about waste disposal – essentially rejecting molecules and atoms – which is innately inefficient.

The current petroleum production and refining system has high levels of rejected molecules, such as carbon dioxide and sulfur. Managing this carries a high burden. Do we really want to reproduce that ? Where’s the optimisation ?

2.   Synthesis

By taking biomass and water and industrial waste gases and using thermochemistry to break them all down into basic, foundational molecules, and then using renewable electricity to synthesise them into usuable fuels, stands a chance of being highly efficient in the use of molecules. Starting chemistry with smaller and neater molecules, and choosing which ones we use, means a higher possible eventual atom economy.

Sure, it would require a certain amount of solar power and wind power, but this wouldn’t be inefficiency in the traditional sense. There are plenty more sunshine where the last rays came from, and no waste is created by using their energy with less than 100% efficiency. And the wind keeps on blowing, even though we might use up a lot of wind power for chemistry, without creating slag heaps, or needing to bury carbon dioxide.

With synthesis, energy is chemistry, and chemistry is energy. But then, that’s the way it’s becoming anyway. Virtually every atom that goes into a petroleum refinery has to be processed before it’s fit for purpose. We are getting to the point where crude petroleum is no longer the best option for input feedstocks for liquid fuels.

In addition, synthesis allows us to put carbon dioxide to good use. At the moment, this would be unavoidable carbon dioxide created by industrial processes, and gathered for use in synthetic fuels.

Renewable Gas : Corporate Strategies

A Still from BP Energy Illustrated on Natural Gas in the Net Zero World

Energy Change, a suite of responses to Climate Change, is happening at different rates in different sectors of society and economy. Amongst private enterprise, some companies and corporations are ideally placed to make bold, headline changes. They can do so because they are mostly energy consumers, rather than energy producers; although some of them are becoming renewable energy producers as a result of their actions. Examples include :-

EnterpriseAction
Waitrose and John Lewisbiomethane fuel for delivery vehicles
Marks & SpencerPlan A, renewable electricity
Microsoftbiogas, fuel cell energy, renewable electricity
Amazonrenewable electricity
Googlerenewable electricity

Consultancies and agencies research the progress that companies are making and publish guides to investors, such as :-

AnalystReport
As You SowCarbon Clean 200
Carbon Disclosure ProjectThe A List
UK Sustainable Investment and Finance AssociationOil pressure gauge

Although good progress is being made by many companies and international corporations, there is still one sector strongly resilient to change : the producers of crude petroleum oil, Natural Gas and coal, together with fossil fuel pipeline networks and refineries.

Taking just two companies, BP and Royal Dutch Shell, here is a short review of their strategies on the New Chemistry – how chemical engineering will be taking traditional non-renewable inputs, together with newly-sourced renewable inputs, and using both to make low carbon fuels.

1.   BP plc

Natural gas and the transition to net zero
Gas in a net-zero energy system

BP’s approach is strong on public relations, and neat-looking conceptuals, but weak on numbers as to the proportion of its products that it aims to properly decarbonise.

1.1 Decarbonisation

In fact, the word “decarbonise” is a BP buzzword, perhaps having been coined by BP public relations people in the first place. It means, variously, “to take the carbon emissions out of energy” and “to take the carbon out of energy”, but it is not used in the sense of “to reduce the amount of fossil fuels in energy”, and there is a very clear reason for that.

Of course, as could easily be expected, BP wants to continue to dig up zero cost ancient remains in the form of oil and gas – that’s the bedrock of their business model. Like all good capitalists, they want to capitalise on cheap dirt and make a pretty penny out of it. Unlike some private enterprises, they do not position themselves to capitalise on cheap labour, however their activities have included forging production contracts in unstable oil-rich and gas-rich states, so they do not necessarily have a clean record on human rights.

1.2 Blue Hydrogen

But BP using the concept of decarbonisation allows them to claim that Natural Gas is going to continue to be a viable fuel into the future, because it can have the carbon taken out. They even have the cheek to adopt the use of the term “Blue Hydrogen” for hydrogen sourced from Natural Gas, because they say that in future, the carbon dioxide from this reforming of Natural Gas methane into hydrogen will be captured and buried. Although they don’t say how much in percentage terms the amount of carbon dioxide they really think is possible to bury.

The term “Blue Hydrogen” should, in my view, be reserved for Renewable Hydrogen produced from water. Here are some suggested terms :-

Colour HydrogenTechnology
White HydrogenNatural Hydrogen from hydrogen wells. Non-renewable.
Yellow HydrogenHydrogen produced by solar energy, for example by electrolysis of water. Renewable.
Orange HydrogenHydrogen produced by using the heat from nuclear power. Non-renewable.
Red HydrogenHydrogen produced during chemical engineering. Non-renewable if the original chemical feedstocks are non-renewable.
Green HydrogenHydrogen produced from biomass, for example steam gasification of grass or wood. Renewable if the biomass correctly sourced.
Blue HydrogenHydrogen produced from water by the use of renewable electricity, for example by wind-powered electrolysis. Renewable.
Purple HydrogenHydrogen produced from the steam reforming of Natural Gas. Non-renewable.
Brown HydrogenHydrogen produced from the gasification or steam reforming of petroleum oil fractions. Non-renewable.
Black HydrogenHydrogen produced from the gasification of coals and peats. Non-renewable.

1.3 CCUS

CCUS or Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage is another concept buzzword, that tries to put itself in a different bucket to CCS – straight Carbon Capture and Storage.

With CCUS, the intention is to use the carbon dioxide for something before it is buried, or using it for something instead of burying it, and claiming that this reduces net carbon dioxide emissions overall.

CCS or even CCUS would not be necessary if the carbon in energy was not sourced from under the surface of the Earth, and yet BP seem to believe that the complicated process of digging carbon up only to bury it again is a high scorer in climate change action. Actually, it’s an own goal. The real way to keep advancing is to ditch the fossil fuel raw materials.

1.4 Net Zero

Yes, another buzzword that you will hear everywhere, including the UK Government. Again, it is a way of defending the rights of oil and gas companies to continue to dig up carbon for energy and profit. “Net Zero” means “net zero carbon dioxide emissions”, and suggests that there are ways to capture and neutralise carbon dioxide produced from the use of fossil fuels. That it doesn’t really matter if carbon dioxide is formed from ancient sedimentary carbon and blown into the sky – it can be captured again somehow. That it doesn’t really matter if the energy system remains dependent on fossil carbon, and that all fossil carbon as carbon dioxide can be caught and rendered harmless, whether at the point of its creation in combustion or chemical processes, or from the atmosphere when it has been exhausted in flue gas. That so-called “negative emissions” can universally be achieved with the right technology rolled out, and that it can be economically effective.

1.5 Strategy

BP’s published strategy headlines unconventional oil and gas asset acquisitions and new international start-up projects in a range of collaborations : calling this : “Growing advantaged oil and gas”.

The “decarbonisation” projects are mentioned almost as an afterthought in “Venturing and low carbon across multiple fronts”, including waste-to-fuel, where bananas become jet fuel, and CCS in its “Clean Gas Project”, where carbon dioxide will be used in the fabrication of building materials.

What is not explained is the relative investment funding for these various futures.

2. Royal Dutch Shell plc

The “Shell Energy Transition Report” has a section 4 on “Changing our portfolio in the long-term, after 2030”.

Like other oil and gas companies, it has a line for biofuels in its diagrams. It has ambitions to move into the electricity market. It has ambitions for CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage. And in addition, in its section on “Advanced Biofuels”, it mentions it is fostering the IH2 technology, developed by the Gas Technology Institute, to produce liquid fuels from hydrogen, heat and catalysts. The hydrogen is Green Hydrogen, sourced from biomass.

This would be properly Renewable Gas and Renewable Fuel, if it works the way it seems to from the description

Like BP, Shell produces biomass-sourced liquid fuels – biofuels – to meet regulations in different countries and regions on the percentage of blended fuels that should be green. More information is given in its Annual Report section,

Company2018 Annual Account LineAmount
Royal Dutch ShellProduction, manufacturing and exploration$ 28,310 million
Research and development$ 986 million
BPProduction and exploration$ 2,159 million
Research and development$ 429 million

3. Summary

Shell and BP make strong mentions of advanced biofuels and synthetic gas and liquid fuels manufacture, but aside from minor production projects, they do not appear to have ambition to venture far out of their core business of digging up fossil carbon. Their calculated projections do not give much space to the contributions of green electricity, green gas and green liquids towards the energy of 2030, 2040, 2050 and beyond. Their energy projections are self-determining, self-referential and self-fulfilling : they don’t have a strong ambition to transition, so they don’t project a significant transition.

BP’s energy projection
Shell’s energy projection

It is possible to substitute biomass, water, renewable electricity and renewable heat for crude petroleum oil, Natural Gas and coal in the global energy system. It is the only surefire way to remove fossil carbon from the equation and prevent a build-up of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere.

So the question is, who will ask them to do this ?

Renewable Gas : Concerted Concentration

In the field of energy, trade and co-operation is, and always has been, essential. In the time before petroleum products, muddied methane and killer coal ruled the stock markets, people organised together to light, heat and mobilise. And now to combat climate change, increase energy efficiency and spread out access to energy for all, people need to organise again.

Collecting and storing firewood is an activity as old as civilisation, as much part of humanity’s collective memory as drawing fresh water. Arranging the provision of wood, water and light for the night are all part of myths, tales and legends, endlessly retold. Before money was used to trade, strong social and familial obligations made the gathering, storing and sharing of energy and water occupations that formed part of the collective human survival protocol.

Today, despite whatever political, military or social drama is in the throes of being played out, people continue to trade in energy (and increasingly, water), across boundaries and borders, through grids and networks, and fleets of tanks and tankers, on land and sea. When energy trade stops, it because a region or a nation has received the ultimate sanction against their governmental body. People don’t deny people energy (and increasingly, water), unless there is a resident evil that needs to be purged. Arguably, the Third Reich of the National Socialists in Germany was broken through an energy embargo and an airborne campaign against indigenous energy production facilities.

Even as climate change worsens, and efforts mount to combat it, energy (and increasingly, water) sharing through trade must continue, to guarantee humane living conditions, economic development, and the advancement of civilisation through learning and technology. Even where political co-operation and economic treaties are sacrificed for whatever reason, energy trade (and increasingly, water) must continue to keep peace, keep stability, keep progress.

Energy is a sprawling and integral social enterprise, regardless of the ownership and management of the organisations that exist to produce and trade energy (and increasingly, water). Energy creates a brotherhood and sisterhood between private corporations, national agencies, governments and manufacturers. You and I can only address a small personal portion of global warming emissions – the energy system around us, that we are locked into, with its many complex and powerful actors, is responsible for upwards of half of the carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions attributed to us as individuals in global warming accounting. The energy system is the governments who commission energy projects; the energy companies; the vehicle manufacturers; the globalised traders and the entire edifice of the commercial economy, all interdependent. It is this interlocked wheel or whorl of bodies that makes action on climate change so difficult. And yet, it is the fact that these organisations move in lock-step that can make some changes fast and light.

One of the strategies that can break the hold of fossil carbon in the global economy is to use all the levers available to change the contents of the basket of inputs into the energy system. Where we want electricity as an output, substitute renewable electricity for fossil electricity. Where we want heat, move from Natural Gas to Renewable Gas. But what do we do where we want movement, transportation ? What can substitute for crude petroleum oil ? And how do we do this without breaking the global economy – and hence civilisation ?

Any solutions proffered must involve all the players in the tightly-packed and interlocked energy game, and they must address all the problems : climate change, air pollution, energy security, economic depression, energy access, and, increasingly, water security.

This is where chemical engineering of useful low-to-zero carbon fuels, including Renewable Methane, Renewable Hydrogen and base chemicals such as Renewable Methanol, could break the greatest deadlock caused by the dead weight of petroleum.

Burning Things Is Wasteful

Centre for Alternative Technology

Burning things wastes a lot of energy – even burning waste.

1. Plain Old Inefficiency

The systems and infrastructure for the generation and distribution of electricity in the United Kingdom is extremely poor, nigh on immorally wasteful. See the diagram above from the Zero Carbon Britain 2030 report :-

http://www.zcb2030.org/

There are so many things that could be done to improve on that enormous loss of energy, and save on Carbon Dioxide Emissions at the same time.

Continue reading Burning Things Is Wasteful