From a fossilised past to fuels and chemicals of the future

Suzanne Ellis’s guest editorial for the Johnson Matthey Technology Review discussing the transformation to net zero in the fuels and chemical industries.

Suzanne Ellis

Innovation & Strategic Foresights Director, Catalyst Technologies

“To achieve net zero, we must deploy every tool at our disposal today, while continuing to innovate the step-out solutions of tomorrow.”

Today’s fuels and chemicals industries have their roots in 20th century investments in fossil fuel extraction and conversion. Highly integrated petrochemical complexes and refineries have evolved to deliver products that have transformed how we feed, clothe and shelter ourselves, make people healthier, and move across the globe. But the environmental impacts of these industries are under ever greater scrutiny, particularly as we accelerate towards a net zero future with circularity at the forefront of our thinking.

New feedstocks (the raw materials and energy inputs), processes, and products will form the backbone of the future fuels and chemicals industries –  technological advances that will deliver even greater benefits for human life while reducing our impact on the planet.


Themes in the transition towards net zero and circularity

There is no ‘silver bullet’ as we transition our industries to their future state. Many advocate that they have ‘the answer’, but the reality is that, to achieve net zero, we must deploy every tool at our disposal today, while continuing to innovate the step-out solutions of tomorrow. The good news is that the fundamentals are in place – renewable energy costs are falling, we understand the chemical conversions that need to be implemented, and we have the technologies to abate unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions – the challenges are to deploy at scale in an economically competitive way.


More sustainable feedstocks

The chemical industry has always adapted to different feedstocks, driven by price or geopolitical pressures. In recent years, shale gas has revolutionised the US chemical industry, while China retains a strategic interest in coal. Methane offers significant carbon reduction potential and while most methane is made from syngas (a fuel gas mixture often derived from fossil fuels), forward thinking scientists are exploring routes to directly upgrade methane into longer-chained hydrocarbons for fuel. These technologies, applied to renewably derived methane, maintain their relevance in a net zero world.

Bio-derived fuels are already established in transport applications where legislation drives today’s investments. While some commercial routes to bio-derived chemicals exist, the same driving force for change is not there. However, brand owners of consumer facing products are making strong commitments to sustainability and decarbonisation which may create the market pull for biobased plastics (e.g. for packaging), surfactants (e.g. for detergents)and other sustainable chemicals. Contaminated plastics, which cannot be easily recycled back to monomers or polymers, as well as municipal solid wastes, are emerging as alternative feedstocks for chemicals production.

Capture of carbon dioxide from industrial processes or directly from air will become an important carbon source in the decades ahead. The energy required to convert this into carbon containing products will need to come from renewable sources. Green hydrogen, generated by splitting water using renewable electricity, will be a key enabler, as subsequent conversion of hydrogen, via syngas, into alcohols and hydrocarbons leads into downstream value chains. As well as water electrolysis, innovative scientists and engineers are developing and scaling up electrochemical technologies that reduce carbon dioxide directly. These may enable future chemical production at more localised scale.


Optimised and efficient processes

Regardless of feedstock, designing energy and atom efficient processes remains key. 90% of chemical processes today are already catalysed, and we can expect this to grow. When developing new processes, the mantra of ‘right catalyst, right reactor, right process’ remains truer than ever. Recent progress by Johnson Matthey and its partners in Low Carbon Blue Hydrogen production and sustainable aviation fuel using Fischer Tropsch CANS technologies (conversion of carbon sources into hydrocarbon fuel via synthetic gas) serve to illustrate this point.

Seamless integration of renewable electricity, decarbonised hydrogen, and carbon capture will become the norm for chemical plants of the future. Advances in reactor design and control may revolutionise process operation, and the use of feedstocks, such as biomass and waste, which are distributed in nature may drive some applications towards smaller, localised reactors. Rapid advances in biotechnology may be enabling for sustainable fuels and chemicals, but it is unlikely that these processes will be stand-alone. Instead, hybrid bio-thermo-chemical processes, which leverage the key functionalities of each technology, are likely to emerge.


New and greener products

Interestingly, the portfolio of chemicals making up the industry toolkit in the years ahead will likely look broadly the same as today. For example, the challenges of recycling a more divergent range of plastics are likely to incentivise the industry to work mostly with decarbonised variants of what is known, rather than seeking radically new polymers.

Fuel types will shift as transport becomes increasingly electrified, and hydrogen will take up a role as an energy vector alongside electricity. It will be valued for its ability to store and distribute low carbon energy, as well as being the solution to decarbonisation challenges in heavy transport and industry. Kerosene type fuels derived from biomass, waste or e-fuels will continue to dominate long-haul aviation. There is much debate around shipping, with hydrogen, methanol and ammonia vying to be selected as the future fuel of choice. While production of these molecules is well established, the scale of investments needed to move these commodity chemicals into the fuels arena will surely drive innovation in these mature processes.

Markets that are likely to see most innovation in product design are those in which chemicals are unavoidably released into the environment, such as pesticides, fertilisers, detergents, and water-soluble polymers. Biodegradability in real conditions and the minimisation of eco-toxicity will drive the search for materials with reduced environmental impact.


Industrial revolution for a more sustainable future

The transition of the fuels and chemicals industries towards a circular, net zero future will require disruptive transformation in how we innovate and deploy technologies. New ecosystems will evolve as the power generation, agriculture, and waste management sectors integrate with the chemicals and fuels sectors to meet the challenge. The transition will not be achieved by technology solutions alone. The right legislative frameworks, incentives and business models must be established to create a level playing field in which all embedded environmental impacts are accounted for. Deployment at scale is also essential to move quickly down the cost curves and learn while doing.

We are at the start of a revolution in our industries, but one in which efficient and effective catalyst technology sits at the heart. Industry’s current skills in deploying thermocatalysis will be complemented by advances in bio, electro, and possibly photocatalysis. It’s exciting to think about what we can collectively achieve over the coming decades as we step up to deliver the solutions needed for a cleaner, healthier world.


Read more on the technical detail of these sustainable technologies in our Future Fuels and Chemicals themed issue of the Johnson Matthey Technology Review.

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