Researchers from Shell and the National University of Singapore (NUS) will jointly develop processes to use carbon dioxide to produce fuels and chemicals for the energy industry.

This three-year, S$4.6 million (US$3.4 million) research programme, supported by Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF), aims to electrochemically produce ethanol and n-propanol from CO2 — a by-product of industrial processes that is commonly released into the atmosphere.

The research could help reduce carbon emissions and their impact on the environment.

Ethanol and n-propanol can be blended with gasoline to deliver cleaner-burning fuels. They can further be dehydrated to produce, respectively, ethylene and propylene, which are commercially important molecules used in producing polymers that go into products such as medical equipment and houseware items.

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The study will be led by Associate Professor Jason Yeo Boon Siang from the NUS Department of Chemistry, an authority on CO2 reduction. Promising results generated in laboratory experiments will be scaled up in the future.

“The CO2 will usually be captured from flue gas,” Yeo told Upstream.

“CO2 is also a side-product from certain chemical reactions, such as during the production of ethylene oxide from ethylene oxidation.”

CO2 is not produced during the conversion process itself, he said, but could be emitted from the production of the electricity.

The conversion process is based on electrocatalysis: CO2 is reduced to alcohols on the surface of electrocatalysts. The hydrogen atoms used for reducing the CO2 come from water. The process is driven by renewable electricity.

This collaboration with Shell’s Long Range Research Group is brought together by the Shell City Solutions Living Lab in Singapore, which helps city stakeholders navigate the energy transition and identify pathways towards a lower-carbon future.

“CO2 is a major cause of global warming. Converting it into useful products is a promising strategy to mitigate carbon emissions and close the carbon cycle,” said Professor Chen Tsuhan, NUS deputy president (research and technology).

“For nearly a decade, NUS researchers have been building up fundamental research capabilities in the area of CO2 reduction. We are therefore delighted to receive support from Shell and NRF to further develop and test our research findings in an industry setting.

“The innovative and commercially viable solutions generated through this research programme will help to build a path for a greener future for generations to come.”

The collaboration is an opportunity to test a novel approach to use CO2 purposefully for cleaner energy and chemicals, said Emily Tan, general manager, city solutions, Shell Renewables and Energy Solutions.

Attractive strategy

Electrochemical reduction of CO2 is an attractive strategy to use and convert the gas for fuel generation and production of useful chemicals, according to the NUS.

However, it said current methods are unable to produce the desired chemicals with yields that can meet industrial needs. Hence, there is a growing demand to explore eco-friendly and economically attractive methods to carry out CO2 reduction.

Yeo and his team at the NUS will work closely with Shell researchers to discover new catalysts and develop eco-friendly processes to produce liquid fuels such as ethanol and n-propanol from CO2 on a commercially viable scale.

Shell will contribute its expertise towards scaling up the promising catalysts and processes developed by the NUS team. Developing high-performing catalysts and processes is crucial, given the relatively low technology readiness of electrochemical CO2 conversion at the moment.

Collaboration: Landmark decarbonisation agreement signing. From left: NRF chief executive Low Teck Seng; Shell Renewables & Energy Solutions’ Emily Tan; Shell Singapore chairman Aw Kah Peng; Chen Tsuhan of the NUS; and Singapore Economic Development Board managing director Chng Kai Fong. Photo: NUS

Shell will also conduct in-depth analyses to assess the techno-economic and environmental impact of the processes developed by the NUS team.

As the development and scaling up of electrochemical processes for synthesising fuels and chemicals is a relatively new field globally, this collaboration will be an important platform for the research community to develop core capabilities, while promoting a more sustainable energy industry, according to the NUS.

The partnership will also aim to nurture a pipeline of people equipped with the capability and technical know-how to take these carbon-reduction technologies to the next level.

In response to Upstream’s question as to whether, if successful, the technology would be patented or proprietary of NUS and/or Shell, Yeo said that “will be for future discussion based on the results of the research”.

Pioneering sustainable solutions

This initiative complements NUS’ focus on pioneering sustainable solutions to combat global challenges such as climate change, the university said. It also aligns with Shell’s ambition to be a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050.

Last November, Shell outlined a 10-year plan to make significant investments in people, assets and capabilities to repurpose its core business and cut its own CO2 emissions in Singapore by about one-third.

Successful outcomes from this programme will support Singapore’s carbon emissions reduction targets, which are a focus under the government’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 Plan.

NRF chief executive Professor Low Teck Seng described the NUS-Shell partnership as “a testament to our research capabilities in low-carbon technologies and a mark of Shell’s strong commitment to join us in our drive towards a low-carbon future”.

“I am confident that this partnership will spur new innovative solutions to tackle climate change and support Singapore’s Green Plan 2030,” he added.