I'm a journalist, editor, and translator based in Zurich, Switzerland. I write about technology and future timelines at supertrends.com, where I also help expand the community as Expert Relationship Manager.
The Westinghouse Electric Company, a US provider of nuclear technology, is developing a design for a reliable, low-maintenance compact heat pipe reactor that could be deployed in remote locations or for other applications requiring autonomous off-grid power generation. Westinghouse claims its eVinci nuclear “microreactor” is disruptive and could help decarbonize electricity production.
The company says the main benefits of microreactor are its solid core and advanced heat pipes, the latter facilitating passive core heat extraction for autonomous operation and load following, i.e., the ability to adapt power output to match demand fluctuations. As such, Westinghouse says, the eVinci has minimal moving parts and almost operates as a “solid-state” reactor. Its compact design means the eVinci can be transported by four trucks carrying the reactor, the electrical conversion system, instrumentation and controls, and additional equipment. The core of the reactor is designed to operate for three years or more, so that it would not require frequent refueling.
The microreactor can generate 5 MW of electricity, or 13 MW of heat, from a 15 MW thermal core. The company notes that waste thermal energy emitted as a byproduct of the power conversion system can power district heating systems or generate low-temperature steam. eVinci could also be used to generate hydrogen, in applications for maritime environments, or for industrial heat. Its passive cooling design using heat pipes eliminates the need for pumps to circulate water or gas. Conventional reactor coolant pumps, reactor coolant systems, primary coolant chemistry controls, and all associated auxiliary systems are replaced by the heat transfer system.
With the eVinci, it would be possible to supply emissions-free power and heat to remote communities, mining sites, data centers, and other consumers that are not connected to the grid or require autonomous generation capacity for other reasons, Westinghouse says. The company hopes to subject eVinci to additional tests between 2023 and 2025 with nuclear fuel at one of the US’s national laboratories. Subsequently, the reactor design could be finalized and a prototype produced for further testing in 2026. While regulatory hurdles remain to be cleared, Westinghouse believes the microreactor will be ready for commercial deployment by 2027.
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European policymakers are working to shift the transport of cargo and goods from roads to inland waterways by stimulating investment in battery- and fuel-cell-powered ships. A number of EU-funded projects in this sector aim to decarbonize the logistics and shipping sector while also strengthening technological innovation in advanced energy solutions.
Barges are one of the oldest modes of mobility and transport. In Europe, they have been used for thousands of years to deliver goods via the continent’s many interconnected rivers and inland waterways. They are also the most climate-friendly means of cargo handling: One ship carrying 3’000 tonnes of goods is equivalent to 50 railway cars or 100 trucks, but causes significantly less carbon emissions. Investment in inland waterway transport (IWT) is a priority for the EU as well as many member states. Germany alone – a central hub for the continent’s network of rivers and channels – has earmarked €24.5 billion for investment in waterways and associated infrastructures.
Nevertheless, there is still scope for improving the climate footprint of cargo shipping, both inland and oceangoing. According to a study by the International Maritime Organization, the global maritime transport sector accounts for 940 million tonnes of CO2 or about 2.5 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually. Notably, the shipping and transportation business is the only sector that has higher GHG emissions now than in 1990.
Investment in cargo vessels and infrastructure
Both the Green New Deal and the European Commission’s Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy reflect the EU’s desire not only to promote the use of inland waterways and short-range ocean shipping, but also to digitalize this mode of transport and make it both greener and more resilient. In June 2021, the Commission proposed the NAIADES III action plan. Its main purpose is to shift more cargo from highways to Europe’s 41’000-kilometer network of canals and rivers, which today only convey 6 percent of freight in the EU’s 25 member states.
European governments aim to increase inland waterway transport and short-sea shipping by 25 percent by 2030, and by 50 percent by 2050.
One pillar of this strategy will be a complete switch to zero-emission barges by 2050. Research and development efforts are therefore underway to decarbonize ships and barges by replacing their diesel engines with electric or hydrogen-powered (hybrid) propulsion systems. This would not only contribute to achieving climate goals, but also help to future-proof a sector that consists mainly of small and medium enterprises. The IWT sector suffered a 70 percent reduction in passenger transport and lost 8 percent of its freight transport business during the COVID-19 crisis, resulting in a loss of about €2.7 billion in turnover in 2020 alone.
Seas of green
However, there are several challenges to overcome in using batteries for container ships and barges. Among these are cost, size, and the need to tailor the power supply to the specific requirements of each vessel individually. This means that some kinds of ships, especially those that serve predictable routes and deliver predictable services, are especially well suited for switching to battery power. Among these are ferries and barges, for which electricity costs and consumption, and thus the economic viability of battery-powered operations, are particularly easy to calculate.
The main problem, though, is that battery technology for maritime applications is simply not yet sufficiently mature to be deployed at scale in the service of the EU’s climate neutrality goal for the shipping sector. This is why the EU, as part of its Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, funded the SEABAT project to develop a fully electric maritime hybrid concept that combines modular high-energy batteries and high-power batteries with novel converter concepts and manufacturing solutions derived from the automotive sector.
The ultimate aim of this project is to arrive at a solution that uses affordable, standardized modular components that can be combined as required for each individual ship. Funded by the EU with €9.5 million, the SEABAT consortium – which includes 20 shipbuilders and integrators – hopes to develop a full-electric maritime hybrid battery concept combining two battery types in a standardized and modular package that can be produced at scale.
Can IWT ride the hydrogen wave?
The second approach to decarbonizing inland cargo shipping is to develop transport vessels running on hydrogen fuel cells that will operate with zero emissions, powered by green hydrogen synthesized from renewable electricity using electrolyzers. To this end, the EU has launched the FLAGSHIPS project, the purpose of which is to design four commercially operated hydrogen fuel cell ships and build two of these as demonstration vessels.
With about €6.7 million in funding, including €5 million contributed by the EU, the project aims to deliver one hydrogen barge that will operate on the River Seine in the center of Paris, and a H2-powered container ship that will carry cargo on the Rhine between the Dutch North Sea of Rotterdam and the inland port of Duisburg, situated in Germany’s industrial heartland in the Ruhr region. Both of these demonstration vessels will include on-board hydrogen storage facilities, which will undergo a safety review before approval. The container ship operating out of Rotterdam will have 1.6 MW of fuel cell power installed.
According to the EU, the vessels developed under the FLAGSHIPS project will be maintained by their owners beyond the 18-month demonstration period, with support already being secured from local end-users and communities. It is hoped that the project will significantly reduce the capital cost of marine fuel cell power systems by leveraging knowhow from existing on-shore and marine system integration activities, while also strengthening European supply chains for hydrogen fuel as well as fuel cell technologies.
Setting course for the energy transition
European efforts to decarbonize inland cargo shipping through projects like NAIADES III, SEABAT, and FLAGSHIPS underscore the community’s determination to leverage the full spectrum of green technologies to achieve net zero GHG emissions by 2050. By fostering electrification as well as the development of green hydrogen, fuel cells, and related infrastructures, policymakers are further boosting demand for these innovative and sustainable solutions to the challenge of climate change.
With buy-in from the European shipping and shipbuilding industry, the EU can help this key sector of the global economy reduce its carbon footprint while simultaneously encouraging the development of advanced propulsion systems for riverine and oceangoing cargo vessels. Investments in the continent-wide system of canals and waterways will also help to raise the modal share of inland navigation in the overall EU transport sector above the current threshold of 6 percent. At the same time, these measures will further stimulate the growth of a local hydrogen economy and help to wean the continent off its current dependence on fossil fuels.
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Despite a severe drought that has reduced hydroelectric power generation by more than 20 percent in the past year, the role of renewable energy continues to grow rapidly in Europe, with clean electricity from wind and solar energy alone supplying about one quarter of the EU’s power between March and September 2022, according toa joint report titled “More Renewables, Less Inflation” by energy and climate think tanks E3G and Ember. The increased output of clean electricity has not only helped the European bloc avoid massive amounts of carbon emissions, but also saved EU countries nearly €100 billion worth of gas imports through overall renewables generation at a time when rising energy prices are a key driver of inflation in the Eurozone.
The year-on-year increase amounted to an additional 39 terawatt-hours (TWh) or 13 percent growth in wind and solar power generation, which helped the EU avoid burning about 8 billion cubic meters of gas, for cost savings of about €11 billion. In total, between March and September 2022, member states produced 192 TWh of wind power and 153 TWh of solar energy, accounting for 345 TWh in total.
Today, these two energy sources account for 24 percent of the EU’s electricity, up from just over 20 percent in the previous reporting period, the report states. The increase in clean energy output helped to mitigate the impact of a dry spell that reduced hydroelectricity generation by 21 percent, as well as a 19 percent reduction of nuclear power capacity across the continent.
The expansion of renewables is one way of counteracting inflation in the EU, which is largely driven by rising energy prices (+40.8 percent) and dependency on gas imports from Russia. Although European countries are now rushing to seek alternative sources of natural gas as well as other energy carriers to make up the shortfalls in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the EU has actually increased gas imports from Eastern Europe in the period since Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014. That dependency would have been even greater had the Nord Stream 2 pipeline been commissioned and started delivering Russian gas as planned.
The two think tanks note that the energy transition in Europe has been slower than expected in recent years, stalled partially by a desire among some stakeholders to use gas as a “bridge fuel” on the path to clean energy. As a result, the EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED) mandating clean energy use was less ambitious than it could have been.
In May 2022, the Commission increased the RED target from 40 to 45 percent clean energy in the overall energy mix as part of the RePowerEU proposal to wean the bloc off its reliance on Russian oil and gas by 2030, which was also backed by the European Parliament. But the European Council, representing the governments of member states, appears to be dragging its feet over the matter, prompting the report’s authors to wonder whether the EU is set to repeat earlier mistakes as it frantically searches for alternative gas suppliers.
Meanwhile, some European countries are stepping up their renewable energy game and setting new records for clean energy generation at the national level. In the period from March to September 2022, according to the report, 19 countries reached unprecedented levels of wind and solar electricity generation.
Poland reported the greatest relative year-on-year increase (+48.5 percent, or 5 TWh), while Spain’s increase of 7.4 TWh was the highest in terms of absolute numbers. Germany generated 104 TWh of solar and wind power, 5.4 TWh more than in the previous year, which accounted for about one-third of its electricity and saved the country about €1.6 billion in avoided gas imports. Moreover, many of the EU-27 governments have raised their sustainability targets and are aiming for even higher shares of renewables in their electricity generation by 2030.
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A number of recent high-profile attacks on critical infrastructures in several countries have raised concerns about protecting vital public assets. While many experts have long predicted a “Digital Pearl Harbor” involving high-tech cyberattacks, these operations have been carried out as low-tech attacks using angle grinders and explosives. Are we preparing for the wrong threats, mesmerized by the prospect of extremely sophisticated low-likelihood, high-impact incidents?
For decades, some security experts and media alike have been touting the specter of “cyberwar” – the disruption or destruction of critical assets essential to the functioning of society by operatives who exploit vulnerabilities in digital networks. Such scenarios often envisage shadowy actors, directly or indirectly controlled by hostile state agencies, burrowing into another nation’s vital systems over time, only to suddenly shut them down in an instant without warning when their governments order them to do so during a crisis or military confrontation, bringing the targeted country to its knees through the failure of its infrastructure backbone.
At this point, the narrative goes, the hackers will open dams and floodgates, delete crucial data, overload energy transmission networks, or hijack command and control systems for airports, hospitals, and similar facilities, while their governments avoid accountability due to the difficulty of attributing such operations to state actors. For several decades, these fears have been summarized in the notion of a “Digital Pearl Harbor” – a sudden, violent, devastating attack in the virtual battlespace, carried out at low cost, low risk, and with little effort thanks to the pervasiveness and vulnerability of computer networks.
Four fallacies about cyberattacks
Myriam Dunn Cavelty, Senior Lecturer for Security Studies and Deputy for Research and Teaching at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, thinks that such scenarios are too simplistic. “The assumption that all cyberattacks are cheap and easy – and therefore the logical weapon of choice – is wrong,” she told Supertrends.
“The assumption that all cyberattacks are cheap and easy – and therefore the logical weapon of choice – is wrong.” Myriam Dunn Cavelty
First of all, the idea that every vulnerability will be exploited is wrong. In reality, the authors argue, the existence of a vulnerability reveals nothing about why, how, and when it would make sense for an adversary to exploit it.
Second, contrary to popular belief, a network intrusion in and of itself is not proof of success. Rather, the success of any operation depends on the political or strategic effects that it achieves.
Third, while it may appear that digital cyberwar tools are cheap and easy to use, the fact is that realizing strategic goals with controlled, targeted attacks is “hard, complicated, and risky,” as Dunn Cavelty and Maschmeyer argue. The final fallacy is that cyberwar operations can be deployed at short notice, like conventional weapons. In reality, they take months, if not years, to prepare and deliver, and must be integrated into chains of command. The perpetrator cannot simply “pull the trigger”.
‘Largely unnoticed’ incidents
These fallacies may explain why threat scenarios of widespread cyberattacks have mostly failed to materialize since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which had been regarded as having some of the most formidable capabilities in this field. So far, these appear to be largely overblown. While the threat against critical infrastructures is real, and should certainly not be discounted, it has not materialized as predicted, neither on the expected scale nor in terms of sophistication.
Cyberattacks have occurred, for example in Estonia, where the banking sector was targeted in August 2022 in a campaign for which Russian actors were blamed, but which came nowhere close to crippling the economy or bringing society to its knees. Those cyberattacks were described by Luukas Ilves, undersecretary for digital transformation at Estonia’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, as “the most extensive cyber attacks […] since 2007”. However, as Ilves clarified: “With some brief and minor exceptions, websites remained fully available throughout the day. The attack has gone largely unnoticed in Estonia.”
Other events that were initially reported as serious attacks by Russian hacker groups against critical infrastructure proved, upon closer examination, to be exaggerated, such as a reported cyberattack against several US airports in October 2022. As later transpired, all that happened was that websites providing flight information had been subjected to denial-of-service attacks, creating a minor inconvenience for travelers while the airports’ operations remained unaffected.
This is not to say, however, that there have been no attacks on critical infrastructure at all. For example, since Russia invaded its neighbor in February 2022, it has inflicted countless strikes, including with artillery and drones, on the country’s civilian energy infrastructure. Meanwhile, Germany – a supplier of arms and equipment to Ukraine – has experienced two of the most serious attacks on its national infrastructure in recent memory.
On 26 September 2022, the Nord Stream 2 underwater pipeline, which had been built at a cost of €9.5 billion to convey Siberian gas from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea but was never commissioned due to Moscow’s war of aggression, was hit by a series of explosions attributed to sabotage by unknown actor. The resulting damage to the pipeline rendered it unusable, and most likely also irreparable.
On 26 September 2022, the Nord Stream 2 underwater pipeline was hit by a series of explosions attributed to sabotage by an unknown actor.(Right: Drone view of an underwater explosion and gas leak on the sea surface)
Less than two weeks later, on 8 October, Germany’s national railway operator Deutsche Bahn experienced a large-scale failure of its GSM-R communications network, a key element of the European Train Control System (ETCS). This caused a complete breakdown of rail traffic across northern Germany and adjoining European networks. As soon became clear, this was not an accident: In quick succession, the unknown perpetrators had targeted a digital transmission hub as well as its backup facility, in two different locations over 500 kilometers apart. In both cases, they gained access to cable ducts covered by heavy concrete slabs and sliced through the cable bundles with an angle grinder.
Distracted by cyber-doom
It’s notable that these attacks against critical infrastructures involved low-tech “kinetic” weapons rather than highly sophisticated penetrations or manipulations of digital networks. Instead of relying on high-tech tools to exploit hidden digital vulnerabilities, the perpetrators relied on “brute-force attacks” in the literal sense. Have we therefore been preparing for the wrong threats? Instead of focusing on low-likelihood cyberwar scenarios with potentially devastating impacts, should we spend more effort on hardening our facilities and infrastructures against bad actors wielding bombs, hammers, backhoes, and angle grinders?
“Mounting evidence shows that cyber-attacks are relatively slow, ineffective, and unreliable.” Myriam Dunn Cavelty
Myriam Dunn Cavelty certainly thinks so. When it comes to attacks in the digital sphere, “targeted and destructive effects, delivered at a specific time, are very hard to pull off, and the likelihood that something goes wrong during the operation is very high. Using old-fashioned means like bombs or explosives is much more efficient,” she told Supertrends. “Mounting evidence shows that cyber-attacks are relatively slow, ineffective, and unreliable.”
The rise of digital technology was accompanied from the start by “cyber-doom” scenarios. Societies increasingly dependent on networked elements, such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) control systems, in critical infrastructures like energy generation and transmission facilities, potable and wastewater systems, hospitals, etc. seemed suddenly vulnerable to new threats and risks.
Prompted by fears of future cyberwarfare operations that could disable or destroy key elements of daily life, governments built up both defensive and offensive capabilities.
However, experts may have consistently underestimated the practical difficulties of carrying out cyberattacks on a massive scale, while at the same time overestimating the value of such attacks in terms of achieving strategic aims. As Dunn Cavelty and Maschmeyer note, cyber operations can be useful for intelligence-gathering and influence operations to amplify divisions in society. However, the threats to critical infrastructures are more likely to come from elsewhere.
“The hyperbolic term “cyberwar” has distorted the debate for almost 30 years. It is high time to stop waiting for a cyberwar that will not come,” they conclude.
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A direct injection dual-fuel system developed at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia allows diesel engines to be converted to run on 90 percent hydrogen. By retrofitting the polluting diesel engines with the hybrid alternative drive, it is possible to operate heavy vehicles and machinery on green hydrogen, a clean energy source generated from renewable power, and reduce their carbon emissions by over 85 percent to 90 g/kWh.
According to Shawn Kook, a professor at the UNSW School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, the hybrid engine could be quickly retrofitted to existing heavy-duty equipment and help bring down their carbon footprint. This is particularly relevant in Australia, where diesel-powered vehicles are a mainstay of the mining industry that accounts for over 10 percent of GDP.
“We have shown that we can take those existing diesel engines and convert them into cleaner engines that burn hydrogen fuel,” Kook said. “Being able to retrofit diesel engines that are already out there is much quicker than waiting for the development of completely new fuel cell systems that might not be commercially available at a larger scale for at least a decade. With the problem of carbon emissions and climate change, we need some more immediate solutions to deal with the issue of these many diesel engines currently in use.”
In the hybrid solution presented by the Australian researchers, diesel is still used in the engine, but hydrogen fuel is additionally injected directly into the cylinder at just the right moment to resolve harmful nitrogen oxide emissions that have been a major hurdle for commercialization of hydrogen engines.
Kook explained the advantage of tweaking the combustion process: “If you just put hydrogen into the engine and let it all mix together you will get a lot of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, which is a significant cause of air pollution and acid rain. But […] if you make it stratified – that is, in some areas there is more hydrogen and in others there is less hydrogen – then we can reduce the NOx emissions below that of a purely diesel engine.”
The new system, which also improves efficiency by more than 26 percent compared to conventional diesel engines, could be commercialized within 12 to 24 months, according to the UNSW team. Once it is on the market, equipment could be retrofitted with the hybrid solution within months. At that point, the challenge would be to provide an appropriate infrastructure for hydrogen supply and storage.
“At mining sites, where hydrogen is piped in, we can convert the existing diesel engines that are used to generate power,” Kook said. “In terms of applications where the hydrogen fuel would need to be stored and moved around, for example in a truck engine that currently runs purely on diesel, then we would also need to implement a hydrogen storage system to be integrated into our injection system.”
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The mining and resource extraction industry plays a vital role in the modern world as a source of raw materials for various sectors of the global economy. However, its ecological footprint often leaves something to be desired – not just in terms of local ecosystems affected by strip mining and pollution, but also based on the greenhouse gas emissions of its heavy-duty vehicles and machinery. A new initiative at RWTH Aachen, one of Germany’s leading technical universities, aims to promote the electrification of this industry and help it become more sustainable while also remaining competitive.
The ELMAR project, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economics, is conducted by two RWTH departments, the Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies (AMT) and the Institute for Power Electronics and Electrical Drives (ISEA), with the aim of replacing diesel-powered heavy-duty vehicles in Germany’s domestic extractive industry with battery-operated alternatives. The project began in August 2022 and is scheduled to run until the summer of 2025. The government grant will cover about €6 million out of ELMAR’s overall budget of €11 million.
The project is also backed by a consortium of corporate partners including Volvo Group Trucks Central Europe GmbH, Volvo Construction Equipment Germany GmbH, and Volvo Autonomous Solutions AB (commissioned by VCE Germany GmbH), which will provide electric machinery and vehicles as well as automation solutions. Other consortium members include mining companies operating gypsum, sandstone, and sand quarries and other mineral extraction operations, as well as providers of software, cloud services, and autonomous monitoring systems.
Decarbonizing the extractive industries will require more than just replacing diesel-powered equipment with electric substitutes. The project will consider the challenge holistically, also taking into account how the support infrastructure needs to be adapted, as well as changes to operational processes in an industry that, in Germany, includes around 1,600 companies with 2,700 plants and 23,500 employees in gravel, sand, and natural stone production alone.
Dr. Tobias Hartmann of the Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies at RWTH Aachen explained: “Maintaining process reliability in extraction while ensuring security of electrical supply, as well as coupling it to renewable energy sources, we want to demonstrate in representative application scenarios that electrical transport is possible in domestic resource extraction. The holistic approach taking production, energy demand and energy supply aspects into account makes it possible to optimize existing and upcoming operating concepts.”
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In just three years, German pharma company BioNTech, which delivered the first vaccine against COVID-19, has become a major player in the biotech field, not only delivering hundreds of millions of vaccine doses, but also continuing its original focus on mRNA vaccines and other drugs to treat cancer. The company’s rapid growth has not only brought fame and revenues, however, but also new collaborations, production facilities, and supply chains that need to be carefully managed on a country-by-country basis, especially because its core product are personalized mRNA vaccines that are specifically tailored to individual patients.
In order to handle the massive increase in logistics while continuing to coordinate its research and distribution, BioNTech has entered into a partnership with the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Mathematics ITWM, a renowned German applied research institute that develops and implements technologies spanning theoretical and applied mathematics in collaboration with industry partners. Working together, Fraunhofer ITWM and BioNTech developed two software platforms whose algorithms support planning, management, and automation of the pharma company’s global research and distribution work, including cancer treatment and vaccination applications, and to adapt to new requirements.
Fraunhofer ITWM researcher Heiner Ackermann, who works at the High Performance Center Simulation and Software Based Innovation in Kaiserslautern, Germany, said the software tools are able to handle the complexity of BioNTech’s work flows in a way that off-the-shelf solutions cannot match. As such, they provide a “solution that uses flexible mathematical methods and models – a tailor-made solution that is not only specifically designed for the processes at BioNTech, but can also optimize them,” Ackermann explained.
The challenges of managing the complex operations of a global biotech corporation include applications for regulatory approval, setting up and carrying out pharmaceutical trials, or dealing with industry-specific problems such as fluctuating process times and higher reject rates caused by defective tissue samples, to name just a few. But for BioNTech, these challenges are compounded by the fact that its individualized cancer drugs are designed differently for each patient in small batches. They are then distributed to many countries, each of which has its own regulatory requirements governing everything from initial approval to rules about shelf life.
Now, the company has received its own customized solutions to deal with this high level of complexity. With the two new software platforms, BioNTech will be able to establish durable and stable production processes for vaccine production and individualized mRNA-based cancer treatments. “Thanks to our successful collaboration with the Fraunhofer ITWM team, BioNTech has acquired tailor-made solutions that provide vital support in high-stakes situations. We will continue to use the software-optimized processes in other areas in the future,” said Oliver Henning, Senior Vice President Operations at BioNTech.
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The global construction industry has a sustainability problem. Because cement production requires the addition of burnt limestone – a finely ground powder known as portland cement – as binder, it causes huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to the industry’s role as a leading source of atmospheric CO2.
Overall, the use of cement by the building sector accounts for about 7 percent of carbon discharges worldwide. Increasing awareness of this problem on the part of regulators and the general public are driving efforts to decarbonize cement production and bring global construction in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
In June 2022, a research group in the US involving scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) received a US$3.2 million grant from the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) to develop an alternative way of manufacturing portland cement from limestone made by microalgae called coccolithophores. These single-cell plankton organisms build up shells of calcium carbonate from sunlight, seawater, and dissolved carbon dioxide using the same process that results in the growth of coral reefs.
Net negative carbon emissions
Not only does this method avoid the laborious, energy- and time-consuming, and costly process of mining limestone from quarries; because the microalgae extract and store atmospheric CO2 through photosynthesis, the resulting biogenic limestone has a neutral carbon footprint, since the amount of carbon released during calcining (heating) is equal to that stored by the microorganisms. If additional quantities of biogenic limestone are used as a filler material, the portland cement produced through this novel method would ultimately result in net carbon negative emissions by permanently storing CO2 in concrete.
“This neutral-CO2 cement would be used to replace normal cement in concrete structures, which would contribute significantly to reducing the carbon footprint of the cement industry.” Catharina Alves-de-Souza, University of North Carolina Wilmington
“This neutral-CO2 cement would be used to replace normal cement in concrete structures, which would contribute significantly to reducing the carbon footprint of the cement industry,” said Catharina Alves-de-Souza, who heads the Algal Resources Collection at UNCW’s Center for Marine Science. She added that ARPA-E’s “Harnessing Emissions into Structures Taking Inputs from the Atmosphere” (HESTIA) program was one of the more innovative and exciting examples of microalgal biotechnological applications: “The proposed biotechnological approach offers a revolutionary pathway to produce, for the first time, CO2-neutral portland cement using microalgae. Nothing like that has ever been attempted before.”
Commercial viability of biogenic limestone
Alves-de-Souza is optimistic that the biogenic limestone would not only be good for the environment, but also generate revenue: “We will also obtain other high-value products from the microalgae, such as lipids and proteins, which will make the project economically viable.” Moreover, the industry could adapt the novel manufacturing process very rapidly, according to Dr. Wil Srubar, the lead principal investigator on the stone project and associate professor in Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering and CU Boulder’s Materials Science and Engineering Program.
“Because biogenic limestone is plug-and-play with traditional portland cement manufacturing, the only real challenge for us is achieving economies of scale.” Wil Srubar, CEO, Minus Materials
Srubar is also the CEO of Minus Materials, a pre-seed startup spin-off company of UC Boulder that handles the commercialization of the climate-friendly building material. He said the biogenic lime could be taken up almost immediately because it can be seamlessly integrated with state-of-the-art cement production: “Because biogenic limestone is plug-and-play with traditional portland cement manufacturing, the only real challenge for us is achieving economies of scale. Minus Materials has developed multiple viable pathways to get there. All we need to do now is execute,” Srubar told Supertrends.
Denver-based Minus Materials describes its mission as “developing new science and technology to accelerate decarbonization of the cement and concrete industry while strengthening their global value chains through advanced biotechnology”. In a June 2022 funding round, the company received backing from SOSV, a multi-stage venture capital firm with US$1.3 billion in assets under management that focuses on human and planetary health, and from SOSV’s biotech startup accelerator IndiBio.
The researchers believe that producing all the cement required by the US construction industry would require a space of 1 to 2 million acres (4.000 to 8.000 km2) of open ponds for cultivation of the calcium-producing algae. This amounts to just 0.05 to 0.10 percent of the country’s land area. For comparison, a hundred times more land is used to grow corn in the US. The effect would be even greater if scaled up globally: Replacing all cement-based construction around the world with biogenic limestone cement would prevent two gigatonnes of CO2 emissions annually, while extracting and storing another 250 million additional tonnes of atmospheric CO2.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the direct CO2 intensity of cement production saw a 1.8 percent annual increase during the period from 2015 to 2020. However, achieving the goals set in the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario for the global energy sector would require that this value decrease by 3 percent per year.
The intergovernmental organization says that a realistic path toward achieving these climate targets would require a reduction of the clinker-to-cement ratio, since the amount of clinker – the main ingredient in cement – used in production is directly proportional to the volume of CO2 emissions caused during this process. The IEA has also said that carbon capture, usage, and storage (CCUS) technologies will be “crucial” in preventing carbon emissions during limestone calcination in cement-making.
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As a major emitter of CO2, the chemical sector must drastically go on the decarbonization path in its operations. At the same time, its products are indispensable for bringing about a fundamental global energy transition. Already today, a range of options are available that will allow the industry to become a trailblazer on the path to a carbon-free world.
The chemical industry has a CO2 problem. It is not only one of the biggest sources worldwide of carbon emissions, which it mainly causes through thermal energy generation as well as plastics and ammonia production; it is also the largest industrial consumer of fossil fuels in the form of natural gas and oil. In 2020, primary chemical production accounted for 923 MtCO2 globally.
Nearly half of these discharges (450 MtCO2) are due to ammonia production, while another 251 MtCO2 come from the production of high-value chemicals that are mainly used as plastic precursors. These emissions are primarily caused by power plants (55 MtCO2 in 2017), steam crackers that break down saturated hydrocarbons (32 MtCO2), and production of grey hydrogen for ammonia (24 MtCO2). In the EU, chemical corporations account for 18 percent of all industrial emissions.
Decarbonizing this sector is challenging, however, for a number of reasons. First, many of its production processes rely on carbon-based feedstock – raw precursor materials that cannot be easily replaced even if energy consumption is switched to renewable sources. The emissions associated with these products are released further downstream in the value chains. Secondly, because many products and services provided by the chemical industry are indispensable for achieving the energy transition and other UN Sustainability Goals, they cannot be exchanged for greener alternatives at short notice.
Conversely, reducing emissions in chemical production would have significant knock-on effects by helping other sectors downstream decarbonize their own value chains. In the wake of the 2016 Paris Agreement, all economic actors are under growing pressure from regulators, investors, customers, and society at large to drastically reduce their carbon footprints in order to limit global warming to no more than two degrees Celsius.
Incentives for decarbonization
In practical terms, this creates an incentive to ensure that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions decline sharply by 2030 and to arrive at net zero emissions around 2050. The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (REDII), for instance, envisages a minimum share of 32 percent renewable energy production by 2030. To ensure these targets are met, the EU is introducing a raft of measures including emissions trading schemes (ETS), CO2 pricing, and carbon taxes.
However, these incentives may not be sufficient, according to industry representatives. In May 2021, Brigitta Huckestein, Senior Manager for Energy and Climate Policy at German chemicals giant BASF, told the EURACTIV media network that the ETS plans were insufficient and called for the EU to introduce contracts for difference, which are payments intended to make up the difference between the cost of carbon-neutral operations and the carbon price as determined by the EU’s ETS – guaranteeing that industry players will see a return on their investments into carbon neutrality.
Pathways to net zero
Whatever the regulatory measures imposed by national or supranational bodies, it is clear that technological solutions will need to be part of the picture. There are several levers that enable chemical producers to cut back on emissions while remaining productive and competitive, and which may even give them competitive advantages in attracting new business or investment.
In essence, there are three pathways for achieving zero carbon emissions: With efficiency gains, CO2 emissions can be incrementally reduced. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies can help avoid emissions, for instance, by trapping the CO2 underground. Finally, in the long run, switching to e-fuels and greener production processes can help the chemical sector become carbon-neutral.
Short-term and affordable efficiency gains can be achieved in chemical plants through a range of solutions for direct emissions reduction. By modernizing or upgrading existing assets such as rotating equipment and components for electrification, automation, and digitalization, the industry can incrementally reduce its carbon footprint at a relatively low cost of between €10 and €30 per tonne of CO2.
Such measures may be designed, for example, to enhance the efficiency and thus lower the emissions of gas or steam turbines, or of associated hardware like seals, compressors, or generators used in chemical plants. Some fuel-flexible turbines are able to use residual gases from chemical processes, while completely replacing obsolete, high-emissions plants using fossil fuels (e.g., coal) with more sustainable options will bring down emissions significantly.
Looking beyond individual hardware components, there are also ways of making entire processes in the chemical industry more climate-friendly. According to a June 2021 report by the German think-tank Agora Energiewende, there is significant potential for abating the CO2 caused by the three most emissions-intensive processes in the chemical industry – heat production, the plastics value chain, and ammonia production – by deploying low-carbon technologies.
Generating thermal energy for process heat and steam could be achieved with a lower carbon footprint using Power-to-Heat (PtH) solutions that convert electricity into thermal energy. According to the Agora report, such technologies can be deployed on a large scale by 2030 as coal is phased out throughout Europe. Electrode boilers and other PtH options could be even more efficient than using hydrogen, especially when powered by renewable electricity.
These could be complemented in hybrid operations by combined heat and power plants and boilers using natural gas when needed. To make PtH commercially viable, the report’s authors argue, electricity pricing would need to be designed competitively with tariffs and surcharges.
In the production of plastics and synthetics, upstream emissions caused by the energy consumption of refineries can be reduced in the end-of-life phase of plastic products. Steam crackers used to break up crude oil into its component substances can also operate with electrical power or equipped with CCS solutions. A number of chemical recycling options are currently being explored in pilot plants by chemical companies, including the use of residual or waste gases and plastics as fuel or the use of (solar) electricity in electrochemical processes and crackers.
An expanded role for hydrogen
Hydrogen already plays a key role in the chemical industry, as a feedstock (for example for methanol and ammonia production) and also as a reaction agent in certain processes. However, the Agora report anticipates that its importance in refinery operations will diminish as the fossil fuel industry is phased out by 2050. Instead, hydrogen use will shift from the chemical industry to the steel sector, which is expected to consume 123 TWh of lower heating value (LHV) hydrogen energy by the middle of the century. Hydrogen will nevertheless still be needed to make ammonia and methanol as well as for the recycling of chemical plastics.
Here, the use of green hydrogen – made by breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen in an electrolyzer powered by renewable energy – can contribute further to the decarbonization of processes in the chemical industry as well as associated sectors. Beyond its use as feedstock and as a fuel, it also serves as a storage medium that can enable sector coupling through “Power-to-X” solutions.
As such, the chemical industry can indirectly support the energy transition to a more sustainable power supply by stabilizing grids and assisting the uptake of energy from wind, solar, and other stochastic power sources.
The chemical industry – a catalyst for change?
Transforming the chemical industry, and indeed all industry sectors worldwide, will be a vital part of global efforts to limit global warming and achieve the goals stated in the Paris Agreement to ensure the planet remains habitable for future generations. Indeed, this transformation is already underway, and all major players in the chemical sector must now move towards accelerated decarbonization if they wish to remain relevant. The current investment cycle will determine the sustainability of operations for decades to come.
All industry actors are feeling the pressure to adapt their investments and production processes as well as demands from regulatory agencies and other stakeholders to decarbonize their processes, products, and services. There are many options for achieving this transformation – some are incremental, some transformational. Every corporation must choose their specific pathway, which will be highly dependent on their business model as well as external factors, such as their geographic location and its potential for renewable energy, as well as the regulatory framework in which a company operates.
The bottom line is that the chemical industry, which accounts for a sizeable share of global carbon emissions, can become a catalyst for change and lead the way in the bringing about a transition to a zero-carbon future.
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A method for growing wood-like materials with specific properties and shapes could pave the way towards 3D-printed wood and offer an alternative to industrial forestry, which has severe effects on the global climate and environment and eliminates about 10 million hectares of forest every year. The ability to make “customizable timber” in a laboratory setting would reduce waste in manufacturing and allow forests to remain untouched as a measure to mitigate climate change.
Scientists at MIT have demonstrated how “wood-like plant material” can be grown in a lab from cell cultures in a way that tailors their material properties and shapes to specific purposes. In the first step, they extracted cells from the leaves of young Zinnia elegans plants. After being allowed to grow in a liquid medium for two days, the cells are placed in a gel-based nutrient medium. This contains hormones that can be adjusted to give the cells certain physical and mechanical properties such as density and stiffness. As such, they behave somewhat like stem cells, according to the researchers.
Moreover, using 3D bioprinting techniques, the plant materials could one day be grown into individual, artificial shapes, sizes, and forms that would be difficult or impossible to achieve with traditional agricultural methods. This means that little waste would be produced when processing the wood-like material into furniture or other purposes for human use.
“The idea is that you can grow these plant materials in exactly the shape that you need, so you don’t need to do any subtractive manufacturing after the fact, which reduces the amount of energy and waste. There is a lot of potential to expand this and grow three-dimensional structures,” said Ashley Beckwith, a recent PhD graduate at MIT and lead author of a research paper published in the journal Materials Today.
A 3D printer can extrude the cell culture gel solution in the desired pattern in a petri dish, where it incubates for three months, maturing at a speed that is about two orders of magnitude faster than a tree’s natural growth to maturity. During this process, lower hormone levels resulted in plant materials with lower density, while higher concentrations of hormones in the nutrient broth yielded denser and stiffer material.
More research is needed to study how these lab-grown plant materials can be lignified, i.e., how they can be made more wood-like through deposits of lignin polymer in their cell walls. The scientists also hope to be able to transfer and adapt the novel growth method to other tree species with commercial value, like pine, as a way of reducing deforestation.
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A recent scientific breakthrough in capturing atmospheric CO2 promises to remove GHG faster, more efficiently, and with less energy consumption than conventional methods by using isophorone diamine as a sorbent. Market observers believe the new method could speed up the commercial viability of DAC solutions as a key element of climate change mitigation.
Direct air capture of carbon emissions is one of several promising approaches for mitigating climate change. Atmospheric CO2 can be locked in through long-term storage solutions or used to produce carbon-neutral fuels for sectors that are difficult to decarbonize, such as aviation.
Under the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, around 350 megatonnes of air-captured carbon emissions will be used by the middle of the century for the production of synthetic clean fuels whose combustion releases only as much CO2 as was removed from the air for their production. The ability to actively remove carbon from the atmosphere is a key pillar of global efforts to prevent warming from exceeding 1.5° Celsius.
Nevertheless, most existing carbon emissions capture and storage (CCS) technologies have drawbacks, both in terms of efficiency and regarding the speed at which they can be deployed on a scale where they can appreciably lower the global warming impact of greenhouse gases. A new approach for CCS presented by Tokyo Metropolitan University researchers could change that, however. In a paper published on 10 May 2022 in the research journal ACS Environmental Au, the scientists describe a novel approach using isophorone diamine (IPDA) as a sorbent with high absorption/desorption efficiency that can remove more than 99 percent of CO2 under a 400 ppm CO2 flow system.
It did so at least twice as quickly as existing systems, including those employing potassium hydroxide and calcium hydroxide, which are less efficient and have higher recovery costs. IDPA, on the other hand, can be reused after being slightly heated, and is therefore suitable for use in a forward-looking sustainable energy system based on circular use of materials.
The researchers at Tokyo Metropolitan University had spent some time studying liquid-solid phase separation systems as a way of achieving direct air capture of atmospheric carbon. In these systems, the air is bubbled through a liquid that reacts with the CO2 in such a way that the non-soluble carbon is precipitated as a solid. This means that the reaction product does not accumulate in the liquid, but can be easily removed, allowing the liquid to be recycled and reused with minimal loss of reaction speed and efficiency.
Miraç Yazıcı, a market research expert based in Liverpool whose tutoring and consultancy company Econscan tracks tech trends, believes that while the IDPA-based technology has some drawbacks, especially when it comes to cost, its efficiency and speed in removing carbon from the air are huge advantages. “This new method is twice as fast as the nearest other removal technique and operates at low temperatures of about 60° Celsius,” he notes. As such, it is certain to be of interest to the operators of the handful of CCS facilities that are already in operation.
Yazıcı mentions two projects that are currently in the news and indicate strong interest in commercializing the capture and usage or storage of GHG emissions. In the UK, Tata Chemicals Europe – a market leader in the production of sodium carbonate, salt, and sodium bicarbonate – inaugurated the country’s first industrial-scale carbon capture and usage plant at Northwich, Cheshire on 24 June 2022, capping a £20 million (€23.2 million) investment that was supported by a £4.2m grant from the British government’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as a contribution to reaching its ambitious net-zero targets.
Only days later, on 29 June, a consortium consisting of Exxon Mobil, Shell, and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (Cnooc Ltd.) signed a non-binding agreement with the government of China’s Guangdong Province to build a CCS facility that would capture as much as 10 million tonnes of CO2 annually. That is the equivalent of about 0.1 percent of China’s annual emissions, which would make it one of the largest such projects in the world.
Energy efficiency – a game-changer?
“There are new developments and advances almost daily in this area,” says Yazıcı, adding that some components still need to be improved before the technology can make a viable contribution to the problem of atmospheric carbon. Solutions that operate at higher temperatures also have higher energy consumption, and some of them actually burn natural gas as a source of thermal energy, which runs contrary to the aim of GHG removal – or as Yazıcı puts it: “It’s madness.”
That’s one reason why he believes the IDPA-based process is a potential game-changer, since reducing the amount of process heat also means lower energy consumption.
Because the source and amounts of energy required are such important factors in DAC technology, the ability to operate at lower temperatures would bring down the cost of decarbonization. A target price of US$100 per tonne of CO2 captured would make direct air capture commercially viable, but currently, that price is up to six times higher, depending on the solution used.
The price also determines the feasibility of using captured carbon for multiple industrial applications including construction materials; synthetic fuels; chemicals and polymer production; carbonated beverages, or the development of advanced materials like carbon fibers, nanotubes, and fullerenes or graphene.
What will it take to facilitate a global transition to sustainable transport of goods and people? New studies by the International Energy Agency and by Bloomberg New Energy Finance show how this goal can be achieved in a way that is both ecologically and economically viable.
A report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) finds that the global market for electric vehicles (EVs) is growing steeply, driven by strong uptake of battery-powered cars in China and elsewhere, but the 2050 milestone of net-zero carbon emissions is still elusive. Sales of EVs must be complemented by other efforts including more investment in public transportation and policy measures to foster adoption of clean mobility solutions, according to the IEA’s Global Electric Vehicle Outlook, published in May 2022.
The EV market has seen a great deal of movement recently, especially in China, where sales of electric cars account for half of global growth in the sector, thanks to low-cost manufacturing and government efforts to reduce fuel consumption. Global indicators confirm this trend: In 2021 alone, sales of EVs doubled to 6.6 million cars. That is four times higher than in 2019 and more than 50 times the number for 2012, when just 120,000 electric cars were purchased worldwide – a decade later, more EVs are sold every week.
In 2021, there were 16.5 million EVs in the world, three times as many as in 2018. In the first quarter of 2022, another two million battery-driven cars were sold, for a 75 percent increase over the same period in the previous year.
Many industrialized countries have programs to wean themselves off fossil fuels and expand EV infrastructure, including with US$30 billion in public spending, while car companies are not only offering new EV models (about 450 different ones in 2021, or five times as many as in 2015), but plan to exceed legal electrification targets.
Elusive net-zero target
Despite these promising indicators, stumbling blocks remain. Uneven uptake of electromobility means the net-zero emissions target for 2050 could be missed. In Brazil, India, and Indonesia, according to the IEA’s study, EVs account for less than one half of a percent of all car sales. Much of the recent EV growth has been driven by China, the top manufacturer and seller of electric cars, whose 3.3 million sales in 2021 topped the total number of global EV sales in 2020.
In China, a preference for smaller vehicles as well as lower R&D and manufacturing costs means EVs are just 10 percent more expensive than conventional cars, compared to 50 percent more in other major markets. Nevertheless, in the US and Europe, sales continued to grow by 60 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
More robust policies are needed to foster uptake in countries currently lagging behind. This finding is supported by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BloombergNEF) in its recent Long-Term Electric Vehicle Outlook (EVO): “There is also a widening gap between wealthy and emerging economies on EV adoption. There is a growing risk that the transition is not an equitable one, and that many economies miss out on the benefits of better air quality and new investment.”
Sourcing raw materials
Making car batteries requires a reliable and affordable supply of raw materials. Global supply chains have been disrupted by COVID-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting sanctions on one of the world’s main suppliers of many natural resources. These sourcing problems have raised prices for raw materials like cobalt, lithium, and nickel (although research on alternative battery designs is underway).
Between 2021 and May 2022, lithium prices increased sevenfold. Prices of nickel already increased steeply before the pandemic due to supply shortfalls in China, and sanctions against Russia, which supplies 20 percent of the world’s high-purity nickel, have brought more disruptions and higher costs. BloombergNEF anticipates that this trend will continue: “Raw materials supply constraints for batteries also look very tight for the years ahead. This is set to push back the point of EV price parity in some segments but will not derail the global EV market.”
EVs can not only mitigate climate change and increase air quality, but also make the global energy system more efficient. An electric motor is about three or four times more efficient than comparable combustion engines. Battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are thus not only cleaner, but also much more economical than conventional designs. Reducing mobility costs could boost global economic recovery and bring down the cost of living.
To ensure that adoption of electric cars, trucks, and buses is accompanied by increasing efficiency standards, China’s government requires recipients of funds under its subsidy scheme for new energy vehicles to meet benchmarks for efficiency and performance. This should support domestic technology innovation and lead to the development of ever more efficient EVs for export. China’s prioritization of longer-range EVs has extended their range by 50 percent in the past six years.
Five ways to boost electric vehicle sales
The IEA’s Global Electric Vehicle Outlook proposes five measures for fast-tracking the replacement of combustion engines with electric motors. First, it recommends replacing direct subsidies with budget-neutral “feebate” programs, where inefficient fossil-powered engines are taxed to generate revenue for subsidizing low-emissions vehicles or EVs. Stringent efficiency and emissions standards can accelerate the mobility transition.
Zero emission vehicle sales mandates, purchase incentives and CO2 standards can all help speed up the transition
Secondly, heavy-duty electric vehicles such as electric buses and trucks should become more competitive. “Zero emission vehicle sales mandates, purchase incentives and CO2 standards can all help speed up the transition,” the report notes. In some economies, moreover, electric two- and three-wheeled vehicles and urban buses should be prioritized and supported with more charging infrastructure.
Next, political and fiscal measures to expand charging points, smart grids, and other infrastructure must be continued. Policymakers should require home chargers in parking spaces and ensure EV charging readiness in both new and existing buildings. The IEA also recommends coordination between governments to enable power grids to handle additional loads, and to facilitate two-way communication between EVs and grids for optimized charging and pricing, which would stabilize networks rather than creating additional strains.
Future-ready supply chains
Finally, the Global Electric Vehicle Outlook recommends making supply chains more secure, resilient, and sustainable. Extraction and processing of raw materials requires long lead times and timely investments, which have been neglected in the past. “Governments must leverage private investment in sustainable mining of key battery metals and ensure clear and rapid permitting procedures to avoid potential supply bottlenecks,” the authors write.
Recycling and research into alternative solutions requiring less or different critical minerals could reduce demand, and batteries must be appropriately sized to the size of the car. Coordination between producer and consumer countries, sustainable business practices, and knowledge-sharing will strengthen supply chains to achieve environmental and social development goals, paving the way for e-mobility systems that will make net-zero emissions a reality by 2050.
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Predictability is good for business, and reliability is the basis for stable relations – between individuals, trading partners, or states. Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which took experts by surprise and has overturned long-held beliefs regarding security policy and international relations, has had significant knock-on effects beyond the military sphere. A position paper by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) examines the implications for the future of the hydrogen economy in Germany and Europe. In an interview with Supertrends, experts Martin Wietschel and Florian Roth discuss the war’s impact on global trade, energy, and industry policies.
The much-anticipated shift to a hydrogen economy will bring disruptions in many areas of the world and in many societal sectors, from industry and energy systems to mobility and logistics. But following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this nascent energy transformation itself has been disrupted by the new realities of sanctions, embargos, and supply chains thrown into disarray.
How will the war in Eastern Europe shape and affect the efforts to build up stable global partnerships for hydrogen supply? How should European policymakers deal with these disruptions and manage the attendant political and economic risks? A recent publication by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) in Karlsruhe, Germany analyzes these questions and discusses the interplay between trade, security, international relations, and technology pathways that may determine the development of the European continent for decades to come.
High hopes for hydrogen
In the EU, hydrogen is seen as a potential game-changer in the quest for sustainable development and as a cornerstone of the green energy transition. Hydrogen can enable extensive decarbonization as a storage medium for clean electricity generated mainly from wind and solar power. As a source of process energy, hydrogen – much of it currently still extracted from natural gas – as well as its synthetic derivatives methanol and ammonia play an important role in industry sectors like metalworking or chemical plants and refineries, and are expected to see increased use in international shipping and air transport in the future.
“It’s very likely that the renewable energy potentials in Germany and the EU will not be sufficient to meet this demand. Therefore, we need to import hydrogen,” says Martin Wietschel, the head of the Competence Center Energy Technology and Energy Systems at Fraunhofer ISI. These imports form an important pillar of the hydrogen strategy both in Germany and the EU. Research and development projects in the Asia-Pacific region, in Africa, and in South and North America, as well as hydrogen partnerships with countries in Africa and the Middle East have already been initiated.
“Renewable energy potentials in Germany and the EU will not be sufficient to meet demand. Therefore, we need to import hydrogen.”
Prof. Dr. Martin Wietschel
Head of Competence Center Energy Technology and Energy Systems, Fraunhofer ISI
Resilient supply chains required
However, in view of the sudden destabilization of relations with Russia, a major supplier of fossil energy carriers to Europe, the authors of the Fraunhofer ISI position paper believe that new hydrogen trade links must be guided by clear criteria and take political risks into account. This means choosing partners not only on the basis of availability and pricing, but also with consideration of supply sovereignty as well as the systemic and political resilience and reliability of hydrogen suppliers, together with more general geostrategic and values-based concerns.
“Resilience concepts are already in use in many disciplines,” says Florian Roth, senior researcher at the Fraunhofer ISI Competence Center Politics and Society. “They are very useful for guiding political decisions, and also for choosing partner countries in different domains.” The challenge is to gauge resilience and to select trade partners not only based on past developments, but also in terms of the stability and predictability of their political structures. “We really have to get an understanding of these complex systems to inform our decisions. And that’s where resilience concepts can really support our decisions,” Roth believes.
“Resilience concepts are very useful for guiding political decisions and choosing partner countries in different domains.”
Dr. Florian Roth
Senior Researcher, Competence Center Politics and Society, Fraunhofer ISI
Ukraine as a potential hydrogen supplier
Russia’s invasion of its neighbor not only marked a watershed in geostrategic terms, but also had very significant immediate economic implications, ranging from far-reaching sanctions and the cancellation of the Nord Stream Two pipeline project to calls for the diversification of energy sources, including demands for an end of Russian oil and gas imports and possibly even a temporary revival of coal power plants. In this context, Ukraine – until now a transit country for Russian gas – is also being considered as a possible future supplier of green hydrogen.
“Ukraine has a high potential for producing green electricity and synthesis products based on wind, photovoltaics, and biomass,” says Wietschel. Theoretically, the country could generate up to 1,400 terawatt-hours’ worth of hydrogen by 2050. “Furthermore, we have an existing gas pipeline network between Ukraine and Germany and the EU. With some modifications, this could be used to transport hydrogen in a very cheap way. A free post-war Ukraine could become a very reliable hydrogen partner for Germany and the EU.”
Not only would this generate much-needed revenues for reconstruction, but Ukraine could also benefit from a know-how transfer and the modernization of its energy industry, including significant investments in wind turbines, photovoltaic and solar thermal energy, and processing plants for synthesis products.
Diversifying supply takes time
For the European countries, a diversification of supplier countries offers protection against economic risk from overdependency on individual states with too much market power. On the other hand, building up broad-based, diverse production and transport capacities and supply chains cannot be done at short notice and may increase import costs. Much depends on the infrastructure requirements: Liquefaction and shipping of hydrogen will increase costs by about 25 percent compared to pipeline transport. Since the war in Ukraine is now forcing Germany to quickly import large quantities of natural gas from other suppliers, such as the US and Norway, some existing transport, storage, and seaport infrastructures cannot immediately be repurposed for hydrogen.
Realigning the energy system will take time, says Wietschel. This will include expanding renewable generation and electrolyzer capacity and building up a viable import infrastructure – this alone will probably take five to ten years, he believes, though it may be possible to speed up the process for synthetic hydrogen products like ammonia and methanol, which are already produced from fossil fuels today and imported via established supply chains. “They also have a higher energy density, and this means that in the end, the transport costs are lower compared to hydrogen,” Wietschel adds.
Sustainability comes at a price
He points out that while there are many studies on the cost of switching to a sustainable hydrogen economy, most consider only the manufacturing costs. The most important factor in pricing hydrogen, says Wietschel, is the cost of producing green electricity, followed by investment in electrolyzers and the cost of hydrogen liquefaction and shipping if pipeline transport is not an option. For producing ammonia and methanol, the costs of CO2 and conversion plants must also be taken into account. When additional costs such as risk premiums, corporate profits, selling costs, warranty, research and development costs, taxes, etc. are added to the equation, it becomes very difficult to forecast the future price tags of hydrogen and green synthesis products.
A key question is whether Europe can eventually become self-sufficient in terms of hydrogen supply. While the EU has significant potential to generate renewable energy from solar power in the south and from wind power in the north, much depends on public acceptance of the need to build up the respective generation capacities and on the construction of transport and distribution lines. Ultimately, there will be a trade-off between achieving energy independence or relying on cheaper imports from outside the EU.
The political cost is hard to calculate
If the economic cost of a switch to hydrogen is hard to predict, this is even more true for the political cost. “The current situation really forces us to reconsider some of the basic assumptions of our foreign policies, and our trade policies in particular,” says Roth. One casualty of the war in Ukraine has been the concept of “Wandel durch Handel”, or “transformation through trade” – a longstanding tenet of German foreign policy that trade increases interdependence between partners who rely on imports and revenues, respectively.
The current situation really forces us to reconsider some of the basic assumptions of our foreign policies.
“It was often beyond our imagination that foreign partners would do so much harm to their own economy by breaking the bridges,” says Roth. “What we actually see at this very moment is that the Putin regime in Russia is imposing high costs on its own economy. We have to admit that this is something that other non-democratic leaders are ready to do.” Another flawed assumption has been that trade relations build trust. And finally, as Roth points out, “our whole development cooperation and foreign trade was built on the assumption that by doing trade with partner nations, we would increase economic growth, and that through a trickle-down effect, the whole society would benefit. This may have been over-simplistic.”
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As energy systems become increasingly distributed, localized, and reliant on intermittent clean sources, storage options are gaining importance for ensuring stable supply and stable grids. One technology that remains under-utilized is Compressed Air Energy Storage. Israeli company Augwind has developed a concept that is both simple and sophisticated.
For grid operators, the rise of renewable energy sources over the past two decades has not been an unmitigated success story. The old model of energy generation in large, centralized power stations is increasingly shifting toward decentralized assets, which feed power into the grid at irregular intervals that are hard to predict. The resulting instability and challenges associated with grid management are among the main drivers of the search for efficient, sustainable, and economical energy storage solutions.
Some of these, such as battery storage or pumped hydropower, are based on conventional technologies that are well understood and already in widespread use, and simply need to become more efficient. Others, including green hydrogen, are not yet mature, but are attracting enough attention and investment to indicate that they will be ready to enter general use in the near future. However, given the urgency of mitigating climate change, experts say all avenues should be explored and all storage options utilized to ensure the energy transition takes place without disruptions to consumers.
One of the technologies whose potential has yet to be fully mobilized is electricity storage using compressed air. Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES) is not a new concept: Some of the oldest projects in the US and Germany go back to the 1970s, but commercialization has been hampered by the cost and size of tanks as well as the large spatial footprint. Today, the need to stabilize the grid is generating renewed attention for these solutions, while market forces and regulation of carbon emissions are bringing them closer to commercial viability.
Sun, Air, Water, and Earth
One of the companies exploring and fine-tuning CAES technology is Augwind Energy, Israel’s fastest-growing energy efficiency company. Founded in 2012, Augwind aims to offer an alternative solution for energy storage, but also for the use of compressed air in industrial manufacturing. The AirBattery concept is a simple, yet effective variation on pumped hydropower: During the day or when conditions are right, renewable energy (mainly solar or wind) powers a water pump within a closed water loop to compress air, which is stored with minimal efficiency loss, close to the green power source, in an array of Augwind’s AirX storage vessels, buried in the soil a few meters underground and lined with polymer to prevent leakage.
When the energy is needed – for example, at night or to facilitate peak shaving in response to grid conditions – the compressed air is used to power a hydroelectric turbine, with an expected round-trip efficiency of between 70 and 80 percent. It is essentially the same concept as pumped hydro storage, but with compressed air replacing the gradient of a mountain slope (e.g., 60 bar of pressure is equivalent to a 600-meter incline). The system is safe, scalable, and can be installed almost anywhere due to its relatively small footprint above surface.
In comparison to traditional pumped hydro storage facilities, the AirBattery does not require major construction work, which is a particular advantage on AugWind’s home turf, as Ido Ben Yehuda, the company’s Head of Marketing, told Supertrends in an interview: “There are very little geographical constrains to installation of the AirBattery system, although here in Israel, if you’re going to start digging, you need to make sure that you’re not on some kind of archaeological site or a cemetery from earlier centuries.” But there are other reasons why this technology has been developed to maturity in Israel. The country has set itself renewable integration goals, along with supportive regulations, and many renewable energy projects are underway.
Furthermore, Israel has vast solar potential, but is subject to “land constraints”, in Ben Yehuda’s words: “It’s a small country, there is no vast geography for implementing renewable energy resources at will.” Not only that, but due to the political situation in the region, it currently can’t rely on an interconnection architecture with all of its surrounding neighbors. Israeli engineers have long been working to make their state self-sufficient and resilient in energy supply. This means developing alternative energy sources and the means for their grid integration, but also improving the energetic efficiency of its industrial consumption as well as energy storage solutions.
“What’s nice about this solution is that it’s simple and basic in some respects, but highly sophisticated and technological in other respects.”
Ido Ben Yehuda, Head of Marketing at Augwind
As such, Augwind is also deploying the same technology to optimize compressed air use in industrial manufacturing, where about 7 percent of energy usage can be attributed to air compression. The AirSmart Energy Efficiency System can boost the efficiency factor of compressed air generation, reducing electricity consumption by up to 35 percent and improving security of supply and production yield. Augwind has already installed more than 25 AirSmart systems in Israel at some of the major manufacturers in numerous industries including the metal, cement, plastics, and food and beverage sectors. It has also completed its first installation in Italy and plans to develop new projects in the US and Europe soon.
Simple, But Sophisticated
Even though the technology is new, it relies on two mature energy storage categories – CAES and pumped hydro storage – that are proven to be highly reliable and economical. Both AirBattery and the AirSmart energy efficiency system use the same core components for storage, and both benefit from Augwind’s special expertise and experience in deployment of compressed-air solutions.
“What’s nice about this solution is that it’s simple and basic in some respects, but highly sophisticated and technological in other respects. The technical approach is simple – a combination of pumped hydro for power and compressed air for energy – but the high-tech parts and Augwind’s proprietary software layer, which controls the overall operations, are embedded in the system’s architecture, integration, and brain,” says Ben Yehuda. “It uses traditional industrial components and construction-grade raw materials in a novel technical approach, with no dependency on scarce materials or other elements that could potentially create a bottleneck due to supply chain issues, to provide a long-term solution for distributed renewable integration.”
Compressed air for energy storage is just one of several options for storing renewables, and one whose full potential has yet to be exploited. As the global clean energy transition progresses, such innovative improvements, approaches, and uses of CAES will have a bigger role to play in a distributed and sustainable energy system wherever conditions are suitable.