For new energy technologies, the time elapsed from the time a breakthrough is made in the lab until it is validated, scaled, piloted, and then widely marketed, it can take years, if not decades. But in the race to avoid the most damaging impacts of global warming, the need for negative emissions technologies is urgent.
Negative emission technologies, or NETs – also known as carbon removal technologies – remove carbon dioxide from the air or other sources or enhance natural carbon sinks, such as forests and soil. Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of climate change will require the use of NETs by mid-century.
At the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), researchers like Hanna breunig, which specializes in techno-economic analysis, has worked for years with scientists on energy technologies such as hydrogen and biofuels. Now, they’ve rolled up their sleeves to dig deeper into emerging negative emissions technologies, helping scientists make their innovations more competitive and impactful.
Q. What is your background and your expertise?
My doctorate is in civil and environmental engineering, and in my doctoral thesis I studied underground injection of CO2 and the use of CO2 in industry. I worked with [Berkeley Lab scientists] Thomas McKone, Jens Birkholzer and Curt Oldenburg to understand the scale, cost and potential impacts of CO2 conversion and sequestration options.
At the Berkeley Lab, there has been a real push to pair fundamental science researchers with people like me who are familiar with market analysis, technology deployment, and scenario modeling. Incorporating techno-economic analysis into research and development can not only help science have a competitive impact, it can also help compare technologies and decide what to invest in. I’m not just thinking of the costs. I am also thinking of the implications of the life cycle. You want to know that any negative emissions technology deployed can reduce CO2 concentrations without creating unacceptable impacts in other categories, such as the generation of critical air pollutants.
Q. Can you give me an example of how your analysis might guide R&D?
I worked with [Berkeley Lab materials scientist] Jeff Long on his metal-organic frameworks, or MOF [read about “A Sponge to Soak Up Carbon Dioxide”], for hydrogen storage. He is also studying MOFs for the direct air capture (DAC) of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The real thing he wanted to understand was how to tie the discovery and design of materials together with very practical engineering principles to impact the cost. Sophisticated techno-economic analysis is needed to connect and translate information between these different disciplines to guide research and development.
For example, on DAC technology, my research can determine the importance of having a system that releases CO2 very easily after capture under mild conditions, or of having a system that can adsorb tons and tons of CO2 in a cycle. There are often trade-offs between capital investment and operating costs, but MOFs are renowned for their adaptability, and perhaps the two challenges facing DAC can be overcome.
Q. Interesting. How would you rate these compromises? What kind of analyzes do you do?
In a first pass, I create almost black box process models, where I start at a very high level and model the new technological component based on the properties of known materials and fundamental engineering principles. It’s a valuable exercise because we rarely have prototypes or pilot systems to guide us. From this black box model, we can understand the number of MOF filled units needed for a given target CO2 capture, the energy requirements and all the necessary infrastructure around it – compressors, cooling units. refrigeration. Then depending on where I assume the DAC systems are deployed in the United States, I can estimate the cost of the source of electricity or heat and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with that energy. Comparing the cost and emissions from power consumption with the capital cost of the system helps me to draw some preliminary conclusions before I delve deeper into the DAC process models.
I also do a sensitivity analysis. I could modify, for example, how this material would work in theory if its adsorption looks like this; how does that affect the costs compared to if its kinetics changed a bit? And scientists would help guide me through this sensitivity analysis to say, okay, here’s a low and a high number of what we’re seeing in our research or what’s even theoretically possible. This way I tinker with my model in a very reasonable way.
Q. At what point in their research do you start working with scientists?
If you know the “technological readiness level” scale, where TRL 1 is conceptual and TRL 9 is a system launched and successful under real conditions, I can do a techno-economic analysis for each of them. Even at TRL 10 there is a troubleshooting, or you enter a new political landscape and the developers want to understand their next decision. And at the concept level, it may just help scientists begin to assess the feasibility of different designs or determine which existing technologies their system would even compete against. So it’s almost more of a market analysis and engineering design exercise at this point.
Q. Are there any special considerations when analyzing the techno-economic analysis of negative emission technologies as opposed to other energy technologies?
Without systems analysis to guide deployment, negative emissions technology could be very expensive or worse, very inefficient. There are a number of different negative emission technologies beyond DAC, but I’ll focus on that since I used it as an example. If you run the DAC on a power grid that runs on natural gas and coal, it is estimated that you are actually emitting more CO2 than what is captured. But if you use DAC by using renewable electricity, you will emit less CO2 than what is captured. So if you say your technology costs $ 500 to capture a ton of CO2, but half a ton is emitted due to energy use, we’re actually only compensating for half a ton. So now it’s $ 1,000 to make up a ton. These are the kinds of discussions I can help add real numbers to.
Second, what you do with that captured CO2 is important. Converting it to another chemical or storing it underground has an associated energy penalty. Thus, there are a multitude of issues around the lifecycle that can be case specific and therefore very difficult to communicate.
Finally, we must take into account the logistics. We need to know where the CO2 is captured. Without that part, it’s difficult to model the supply chain and answer questions about whether to store it or convert it on-site or transport that CO2 to a place where you can do something with it. We cannot allocate all of our limited renewable energy resources to negative emission technologies, so we will need to be careful about where we deploy DAC based on these renewable energy resources, as well as CO2 sources and options. CO2 sequestration. So I’m going to think very critically about the supply and also the coupling of these systems. While many of these technologies are increasing in technological maturity, their coupling is still in its infancy.
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Founded in 1931 on the conviction that the greatest scientific challenges are best met by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been awarded 14 Nobel Prizes. Today, researchers at the Berkeley Lab are developing sustainable energy and environmental solutions, creating useful new materials, pushing the boundaries of computing, and probing the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists around the world rely on the laboratory facilities for their own scientific discoveries. Berkeley Lab is a national multi-program laboratory, operated by the University of California for the Office of Science, US Department of Energy.
The DOE’s Office of Science is the largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and works to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science.