Sustainable Process Technologies Emerging from Pilot Plants into Commercialized Systems

by | EPIC Modular Process

Through our work scaling technologies for pilot plants or commercial systems, we often get exposed to the up-and-coming processes on the verge of commercialization. In the last several years, we have seen an especially large surge in CO2, Gas-to-Liquids, and biomass process technologies seeking demonstration or pilot plants. While each technology is different, there are some categories really starting to gain steam.

For example, world’s first zero-emissions fossil-fuel power plant was just announced in Texas. The NetZero startup that has invested $150 million in the project is using a carbon capture (CO2 Capture technology) to achieve this landmark in emissions reduction. We are proud to have been part of several CO2 capture projects in the last five years, and it’s exciting to see a major investment in this technology.

Sustainable process technologies like CO2 capture help improve manufacturing and go a long way in preserving the earth for future generations. Some of the technologies we are most excited about include:

Carbon Capture – Leaping from Pilot Plants to Full Power Plant Applications

While we mentioned this one above, it is worth understanding in more depth. Carbon capture is the process of capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) before it enters the atmosphere in the form of carbon emissions. To date, the outcome of carbon capture has largely entailed transporting and storing the carbon underground. But new processes are emerging that make it possible to turn captured CO2 into more fuel.

There are three general approaches to carbon capture:

  • Post-Combustion Capture: involves sending emissions through an absorption process where a solvent captures up to 90 percent of the CO2. The recovered CO2 passes through a regenerator, which strips the CO2 from the solvent while the remaining emissions (primarily nitrogen) vent to the air.
  • Oxy-Combustion Capture: Fossil fuel is burned in pure oxygen instead of air — resulting in nearly pure CO2 capture.
  • Pre-Combustion Capture: Fuel is turned into a synthetic gas consisting of relatively pure hydrogen and CO2.

Plants throughout the U.S. and the world are actively experimenting with this process. We’ve seen bio-based enzyme solutions, synthetic filtering applications, and steam stripping methods.  Pure and mostly pure CO2 can actually be sold to oil fields for use in enhanced oil recovery or potentially find use in waste-CO2 byproducts. You can read about our work on an enzyme-based 90% CO2 capture project here, or watch a video about our recent large-scale pilot plants project with the U.S. Department of Energy here.

Gas to Liquids (GTL) Processing Technology (Including Bio-Mass)

Gas to Liquids (GTL) is a process used to convert natural gas and other hydrocarbons into longer-chain hydrocarbons, such as gasoline or diesel — methane-heavy gases are converted into synthetic fuels. The advantage of this process is that liquid fuels are easier, less expensive and safer to transport than gaseous fuels are.

One of the exciting applications of GTL is also the opportunity to turn biomass into liquid fuels. Continuing research and development is actually lowering the price of GTL processes and opening the door for expanded production. We’ve participated in several pilot plants for biomass to liquid fuels recently, and there are many experimental technologies developing as we speak.

So far, the hurdle to GTL is making it economical at large scale. We are excited to see how this challenge is solved over time and hope to be a small part of the solution for at least some GTL technologies. One thing to note: when oil prices are high and natural gas prices are comparatively significantly lower, these GTL technologies become even more economical.

Bio-Based Ethylene Glycol

There has been a large uptick in bio-based ethylene glycol market growth.  This organic compound is mainly used for two purposes: as a raw material in the manufacture of polyester fibers and for antifreeze formulations.

In many cases, it’s replacing propylene glycol, which has been used for many applications, such as:

  • Car antifreeze
  • Liquid-cooled computers and machines
  • Functional fluids
  • Geothermal heating and cooling
  • Unsaturated polyester resins
  • Corrosion prevention in PCs
  • Even vaccine production
  • And more

There are now bio-based glycols derived from molasses that can serve as petrochemical alternatives. These newer applications include production lines. Raw materials costs are decreasing and new opportunities are emerging as costs go down.

Biomass to Commodity Chemicals

Carbon-based, fossil resources provide almost all of the base material for the organic chemicals used throughout the world. But in recent years, both researchers and commercial chemical producers have taken major strides in finding new, greener sources to create commodity chemicals.

Some biomass chemical substitutes, such as Lignocellulosic (plant dry matter) biomass, provide inexpensive renewable resources that can be substituted for fossil fuels in the production of commodity chemicals. These materials are derived often from diverse raw materials, such as corn, grasses, wood chips and waste from lawn and tree maintenance and are composed largely of cellulose.

We have helped with a number of pyrolysis pilot plants in this field. Applications range from making plant-based alcohols to replacements for industrial solvents. In a more memorable project, EPIC designed and developed a demonstration plant for Iowa State University and Argo Genesis that produces variations of plant-based asphalt additives.

Testing and Scaling New Technologies to Pilot Plants or Larger Systems?

These exciting, green technologies are just the tip of the iceberg of emerging, new technologies in the process space. At EPIC, we not only immerse ourselves in innovative technologies, we help plants take practical, small steps to implement them. If you’re considering new technologies and want to test them out and scale them in your production, we can help.

Learn more about our design/build scale-up capabilities or demonstration & pilot plant experience.

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