VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) are beginning testing of the Soletair demo plant, which uses air-captured carbon dioxide to produce renewable fuels and chemicals. The pilot plant is coupled to LUT’s solar power plant in Lappeenranta.
The aim of the project is to demonstrate the technical performance of the overall process and produce 200 liters of fuels and other hydrocarbons for research purposes. The demo plant incorporates the entire process chain, and comprises four separate units: a solar power plant; equipment for separating carbon dioxide and water from the air; a section that uses electrolysis to produce hydrogen; and synthesis equipment for producing a crude-oil substitute from carbon dioxide and hydrogen.
Phase 1: Renewable energy. Solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity is used as a renewable energy source in the Soletair system to produce electricity especially for the hydrogen production unit—the most energy intensive part in the system. The renewable energy plant consists of flat roof, carport, wall, 2-axis tracking, and manual tracking solar PV installations. The total installed power is 206.5 kW.
Phase 2: Hydrogen production. Proton exchange membrane (PEM) water electrolysis is used for hydrogen production. The system produces high-purity hydrogen gas at elevated pressures. Hydrogen is used with recycled carbon dioxide to produce renewable fuels, raw materials, and chemicals. The hydrogen gas can also be used as a chemical energy storage and can later be reconverted into electricity in a fuel cell, albeit with an additional penalty in terms of losses in conversion. The hydrogen production system is built in a standard shipping container and virtually connected to the 206.5 kW solar PV power plant at LUT.
Due to the compact design of the proton exchange membrane electrolyzer, the cathode compartment pressure can be adjusted to a much higher pressure compared to the anode compartment pressure. The PEM electrolyzer at LUT can produce hydrogen at a maximum outlet pressure of 50 bar, while the oxygen outlet pressure is kept at 2 bar. Operating temperature of the electrolysis unit is controlled to 70 °C by water cooling. The hydrogen production unit is produced by a Danish company EWII, but modified to enable the adjustment of both gas outlet pressures by back-pressure valves.
The produced dry hydrogen gas is stored into two 350 l composite cylinders. From the gas storage, the hydrogen can be supplied to the mobile synthesis unit (MOBSU) or a PEM fuel cell located in the hydrogen production container.
Phase 3: Direct air capture. Direct air capture (DAC) is the carbon source of the SOLETAIR project. DAC falls under the class of carbon sequestration technologies. However, direct air capture is the only carbon capture technology that can directly capture CO2 previously emitted in the atmosphere. When surplus renewable energy drives the unit, DAC has the potential of being 100% negative carbon emission technology.
The current DAC unit is a modified version of air-scrubbing units for civil shelters. The main principle for collecting carbon dioxide is adsorption/desorption process using solid amine sorbents. The sorbents used in the direct air capture unit are amine-functionalized polystyrene spherical beads.
Phase 4: Mobile synthesis (MOBSU). The MOBSU uses Fischer-Tropsch synthesis to combine carbon and hydrogen and produce valuable gas, liquid and solid products for various uses. The Soletair team is currently working on two different production lines which are tailored for either natural gases or liquid and wax component production. These units are positioned side by side inside the Mobile Synthesis Unit.
The Fischer-Tropsch production line has two major steps. First, CO2 is converted to CO using a reverse water gas shift reaction (rWGS) in which a gas mixture of CO, CO2, H2 and H2O is balanced at 800 °C with the help of a precious metal catalyst. The reactor operates at the same pressure as the following Fischer-Tropsch synthesis in order to avoid compression between process steps. The design of rWGS reactor and the catalyst is VTT in-house know-how.
Secondly, carbon monoxide and hydrogen are reacting to hydrocarbons in the Fischer-Tropsch reactor. Project partner IneraTec GmbH designed and manufactured this ultra-compact and efficient reactor. The Fischer-Tropsch reaction produces a wide range of products from light hydrocarbon gases such as methane, to liquid components such as diesel and up to more solid wax components.
The main parts of Fischer-Tropsch module are the intensified reactor, a hot trap to condense the wax products, and a cold trap to condense the liquid products. The Soletair Fischer-Tropsch unit has a cobalt catalyst in a novel compact reactor with integrated water evaporation cooling cycle.
The MOBSU is positioned in a 2.5 x 9.1 x 3 m sea container and easily transportable. It contains both Fischer-Tropsch and methanation reactors together with a control room.
Phase 5: Refining. The share each type of product from the MOBSU varies depending on the reaction conditions and the catalyst used in the Fischer-Tropsch reaction. It is essential to utilize all of these products fully to make an economically feasible process.
The renewable product that is in gaseous form at room temperature consists of methane, the main component of natural gas, and other light hydrocarbons. It is easy to separate the gaseous fraction from the liquid and solid products. In larger refineries light olefins—ethylene, propylene and butenes—are separated from this fraction. These basic petrochemicals form the basis for the manufacture of a wide range of plastics and other products. On the other hand, the light paraffins generally known as Liquefied Petroleum Gas, are sold to customers to be used for instance in stoves, grills and refrigerators. In smaller scale such as in the case of the Mobile Synthesis Unit, the preferred use of the gaseous fraction is for energy.
The liquid product can be fractioned by distillation to renewable gasoline and middle-distillate hydrocarbons. The gasoline fraction is further hydrotreated and reformed over a platinum catalyst in order to increase its octane number and to improve other characteristics for motor use. The middle-distillate fraction is also hydrotreated and thereafter distilled to renewable jet-fuel and/or diesel.
Phase 6: Renewable consumer products. When the Soletair process is operated in the Fischer-Tropsch mode, the main part of the renewable consumer product is liquid fuels: gasoline, kerosene and diesel. If the renewable hydrocarbons are refined to olefins and aromatics instead of fuels, wide range of possible renewable consumer products exists.
The simplest and cheapest olefin-based product is polyethylene which is the most common plastic. However, Soletair process is aiming for the higher-value products, which are based on three aromatic compounds: benzene, toluene and xylene (BTX). These are building blocks for complicated and valuable polymers, such as polyurethane, which is used in the soft and elastic foam of sneakers. Renewable plastic products like polyurethane sequestrate CO2 unlike fuels, which release CO2 back to atmosphere.
Pilot-scale plant units have been designed for distributed, small-scale production. Production capacity can be increased by adding more units.
The concept we are exploring is an example of how the chemical industry could be electrified in the future. The burning of fossil fuels must end by 2050, but people will continue to need some hydrocarbons.—Professor Jero Ahola of LUT
After the piloting phase, synthesis units will be used in a number of EU projects over the coming years. It will provide a platform for conducting research with international companies.
VTT and LUT have invested €1 million in the equipment. The research is being funded by Tekes and a number of companies: ABB, ENE Solar Systems, Green Energy Finland, Proventia, Hydrocell, Ineratec, Woikoski, Gasum and the Finnish Transport Safety Agency (Trafi).