To wean manufacturers off fossil fuels, reduce business risks


One of the biggest steps humanity could take to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the world would be the complete decarbonization of industry. But without finding inexpensive and environmentally friendly substitutes for industrial materials, the traditional production of steel, cement, ammonia and ethylene will continue to emit billions of tons of carbon per year; these sectors alone are responsible for at least a third of society’s global greenhouse gas emissions.

A major problem is that industrial manufacturers, whose success depends on reliable, cost-effective, large-scale production methods, are too heavily invested in processes that have historically been powered by fossil fuels to quickly switch to new alternatives. It’s a machine that started more than 100 years ago, and one that MIT electrochemical engineer Yet-Ming Chiang says we can’t stop without major disruptions to the massive global supply chain of these materials. What’s needed, says Chiang, is a broader, collaborative clean energy effort that ranges from “focused fundamental research to pilot demonstrations that significantly reduce the risk of new technologies being adopted by the world.” ‘industry”.

It would be a new approach to decarbonizing the production of industrial materials that relies on largely unexplored but cleaner electrochemical processes. New production methods could be optimized and integrated into the industrial machine to run it on low-cost renewable electricity instead of fossil fuels.

Recognizing this, Chiang, a Kyocera Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, teamed up with research collaborator Bilge Yildiz, Breene M. Kerr Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. Their plan: to create an on-campus innovation center that would bring together MIT researchers individually studying the decarbonization of steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene under one roof, combining research equipment and collaborating directly on new methods to produce these four key materials.

Many MIT researchers have already signed on to join the effort. “The team we have assembled has the expertise to address these challenges, including electrochemistry – using electricity to decarbonize these chemical processes – and materials science and engineering, process design and engineering. large-scale techno-economic analysis, and system integration, all of which are needed for this to come out of our labs in the field,” says Yildiz.

Selected from more than 100 proposals under MIT’s Climate Grand Challenge, their Center for the Electrification and Decarbonization of Industry (CEDI) will be the first such institute in the world dedicated to testing and scale the most innovative and promising technologies in the field of chemicals and sustainable materials. CEDI will work to facilitate the rapid translation of laboratory discoveries into affordable and scalable industrial solutions, with the potential to offset up to 15% of greenhouse gas emissions. The team estimates that some CEDI projects already underway could be commercialized within three years.

“The real timeline is as soon as possible,” says Chiang.

To achieve CEDI’s ambitious goals, a physical location is essential, staffed with tenured faculty, as well as undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students. Yildiz says the success of the center will depend on the commitment of student researchers to continue research on today’s biggest challenges in decarbonizing industry.

“We train young scientists, students, on the learned urgency of the problem,” says Yildiz. “We give them the skills, and even if an individual project doesn’t find implementation on the ground right away, at least we would have trained the next generation who will continue to pursue them on the ground.”

Chiang’s background in electrochemistry showed him how efficiency in cement production could benefit from adopting clean sources of electricity, and Yildiz’s work on ethylene, the source of plastic and one of the industry’s most popular chemicals, have revealed overlooked cost advantages for switching to electrochemical processes with less expensive raw materials. With industrial partners, they hope to pursue these lines of fundamental research with Allanore, which focuses on the electrification of steel production, and Manthiram, which develops new processes for ammonia. Olivetti will focus on understanding the risks and barriers to implementation. This multi-stakeholder approach aims to accelerate industry adoption of new technologies on the scale needed for global impact.

“One of the focal points of this whole center will be to apply the techno-economic analysis of what it takes to succeed technically and economically, as early in the process as possible,” says Chiang.

The impact of widespread industry adoption of clean energy sources in these four key areas that CEDI plans to target first would be profound, as these sectors are currently responsible for 7.5 billion tonnes of emissions per year. There is potential for an even greater impact on emissions as new knowledge is applied to other industrial products beyond the initial four targets of steel, cement, ammonia and ethylene. During this time, the center will serve as a hub to attract new industries, government stakeholders and research partners to collaborate on urgent solutions that are both new and long overdue.

When Chiang and Yildiz first met to discuss ideas for MIT’s Grand Climate Challenges, they decided they wanted to build a climate research center that worked like no other to help pivot a large industry towards decarbonization. Beyond the impact of new solutions on industry outcomes, CEDI will also explore the unique synergies that could arise from the electrification of industry, such as processes that would create new by-products that could be the raw material for other industrial processes, reducing waste and increasing efficiency in the larger system. And because the industry is so good at scaling, these added benefits would be widespread, eventually replacing century-old technologies with critical updates designed to improve production and dramatically reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. as soon as possible.

“Everything we do, we will try to do urgently,” says Chiang. “Basic research will be done urgently, and the transition to commercialization, we will do it urgently.”

This article originally appeared in MIT News. It is used with permission.


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