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New catalytic system helps firms turn CO2 emissions into fuel

FIRMS will be able to cut emissions by efficiently converting unwanted carbon dioxide into a potential money-spinner, using a new system developed by Japanese engineering firm IHI Corporation and the Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (ICES), a unit of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

The reactor system, powered by a specially-developed catalyst, allows for more efficient conversion of carbon dioxide and hydrogen to methane. Methane is the main component of liquefied natural gas, which is used for most of Singapore's electricity generation.

A small demonstration unit is being launched on Friday (May 10) at ICES on Jurong Island to show the process to potential customers. IHI is now scaling up the technology, which might hit the market as soon as next year.

IHI Corporation senior researcher Hiroyuki Kamata said the company is in talks with potential customers in both Singapore and Japan, with a larger demonstration unit to be set up in Japan. IHI has its own well-established technology to capture waste carbon dioxide from flue gas. Now, instead of storing the captured carbon dioxide to keep it from harming the environment, firms can efficiently convert it to a useful fuel.

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This makes both environmental and economic sense for Jurong Island's energy-intensive industries, with Singapore having introduced a carbon tax that applies to emissions starting this year, said IHI Asia Pacific general manager for regional marketing and business development Tang Shuquan: "These are producers of carbon dioxide and they are looking for solutions." The tax applies to greenhouse gas emissions of 25,000 tonnes or more, at S$5 a tonne till 2023, going up to S$10-S$15 a tonne by 2030.

It would be particularly useful for power utilities companies, which generate large amounts of carbon dioxide, he added. Some of the power-generating firms on Jurong Island are existing IHI customers for other solutions.

More broadly, an effective catalyst cuts waste and reduces energy needs. "At the end of the day, catalyst development is a part of driving sustainability," ICES executive director Peter Nagler told The Business Times. "We should develop catalysts that enable the reaction we want to have with the least chemical input and ideally the highest yield." 

The collaboration began at the end of 2011, when IHI approached A*Star for help in developing catalysts. Though IHI has been in Singapore since the 1960s, this was its first collaboration with a Singapore research institute. Said Dr Kamata: "At the time, we thought: If we want to deliver some technology solution to future clients, we need to do something more, which is not our traditional business."

Nickel is the best catalyst for this process, but there are challenges in using it: The build-up of carbon deposits which eventually "choke the reaction", impurities such as sulphur which "poison" the catalyst, and temperature increases resulting from the reaction.

"It's a relatively simple process but the reaction conditions are very demanding," said ICES principal scientist Armando Borgna.

To tackle these issues, ICES developed a catalyst comprising nano-nickel particles within the shell of a porous silica matrix. This prevents the particles from becoming less efficient due to sintering or clumping together, and allows the catalyst to stay stable and effective for longer, said ICES senior scientist Chen Luwei.

Compared to industry benchmarks, the new catalyst can last twice as long without being affected by impurities. It can also perform for at least 3,000 hours without any deactivation, which is not possible with usual catalysts, said Dr Borgna.

The collaboration combines each partner's respective competencies, said Dr Nagler: ICES's chemical know-how and IHI's engineering expertise which allows it to build an ideal reactor. It is also in line with A*Star's aim: "We want to translate scientific expertise, scientific knowledge, to something applicable to industry."

The partnership has paved the way for IHI to explore collaborations with other A*Star units in the firm's other business areas such as aerospace and transportation, noted Mr Tang.

Last year, IHI and ICES also began work on a different, higher-value catalyst which will help the conversion of carbon dioxide to olefins, chemical compounds that are used as feedstock in polymer production. The target is to achieve a good yield for commercialisation by around 2020 or 2022, said ICES scientist Poh Chee Kok, who is working on the project.