It’s clear we need a new formula for chemicals production — the processes behind it are still highly reliant on the intense heat generated by fossil fuels.
But as with other so-called hard-to-abate sectors, such as aviation or maritime shipping, the path to electrification will be far from linear. Getting to a place where chemical manufacturers can rely more heavily on electricity generated by renewable sources will require serious industrial efficiency breakthroughs. Naturally, the world of climate-tech startups is willing to oblige.
One example of the sort of innovations we’ll need comes from Syzygy Plasmonics, a Houston-based firm that recently raised a $23 million Series B funding round led by Horizon Ventures. The firm, which employs about 30 people, previously scored about $12 million in backing, including grants from the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation.
Syzygy is developing a photocatalytic approach that uses light rather than heat to trigger reactions from feedstocks such as methane, carbon dioxide or ammonia. The reactors it is creating build on research born at Rice University in labs managed by Naomi Halas (known for her innovations in nanotechnology) and Peter Nordlander (a physicist and materials scientist).
According to Syzygy co-founder and CEO Trevor Best, one of the biggest benefits of Syzygy’s technology is that it is modular, allowing the reactors to be constructed from lower-cost materials than is typically possible and also enabling manufacturers to consider more decentralized production models — ones that could more easily run off renewable energy.
The vast majority of production is centralized, and that is how it’s set up. This could be a replacement or a transition over time for large industry players.
While the process can theoretically be applied to many production processes, including making fertilizers, commodity chemicals or turning carbon into fuel, Syzygy's first target market will be hydrogen, according to Best. The company claims its technology has "the potential" to halve the cost of zero-emission hydrogen. Best said its approach could inspire hydrogen production in places where it's not economically feasible today because of the transportation networks needed to access feedstocks and to get liquid hydrogen from production facilities to ultimate points of use.
"The vast majority of production is centralized, and that is how it’s set up," Best told me. "This could be a replacement or a transition over time for large industry players." Mind you: This technology is still early stage, and he’s not willing to name any industry partners. But, he noted, "We do not suffer from lack of opportunity."
Indeed, researchers predict that the market for hydrogen, mainly used today in petrochemicals and fertilizer production, could reach $200 billion by 2025. A new report from Boston Consulting Group (BCG) focuses on the "green tech" opportunity in this market. According to BCG, the potential lies not just in equipment for transforming current modes of hydrogen production to reduce their reliance on the heat generated by natural gas but also in technologies that enable hydrogen to become a less carbon-intensive feedstock for producing high-density fuel cells, chemicals and steel. (Here’s a peek into how hydrogen might be used in green steel production.)
The BCG analysis estimates these applications could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by between 5 and 6 gigatons annually by 2050. "The main barriers will be the high investments required to switch to low-carbon hydrogen production, the need to maintain operational continuity in chemical and steel production, and the long investment cycles and planning periods required," the BCG authors note.
A key component of this wished-for transition will be the development of next-generation electrolyzers powered by wind or solar energy. The International Energy Agency estimates the electrolysis capacity for producing hydrogen will reach 130 gigawatts by 2030, with the European Union accounting for 80 GW because of its aggressive green hydrogen aspirations. It will take around 600 terawatt-hours of renewable electricity to power that equipment, according to BCG.
Cornelius Pieper, co-leader of BCG’s Center for Climate and Sustainability, told me that hydrogen will be an essential element of improving the energy efficiency of steel production, for enabling electrification of the process and helping decentralize the market.
For example, one idea might be to site hydrogen production at wind farms, where it could be used to capture and store energy in fuel cells and balance electricity oversupply. "To make the deployments possible and overcome the obstacles, this will take collaboration and working together along supply chains," Pieper said.
To be clear, this is an extremely nascent market, and it will take government support — in the form of incentives and R&D investments — to catalyze innovation and get it from lab to commercial. Not surprisingly, it’s a key focus in the EU, and hydrogen likewise is named as part of President Joe Biden’s climate agenda. Even before that, the Department of Energy under the previous president made funding available for scaling the industry (although its main concern was expanding the current production ecosystem, highly reliant on natural gas, to new applications such as steel production or high-density fuel cells).