The world is making slow strides in cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector and transportation. But some industries are stubbornly difficult to decarbonize.
Researchers from the University of Leeds now show that 85 percent of these industrial emissions could be cut using available and relatively mature technologies. It will take political will and further development to bring down cost, but there is hope, the study published in Joule shows.
Demand for products such as iron and steel, cement, chemicals, and food and drinks, is on the rise around the world. All together, these industries emit around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. And they have proven difficult to decarbonize because of their complexity, and because their emissions come from different sources.
Chemical and process engineer Ahmed Gailani and colleagues took a comprehensive look at a slate of technologies that could cut emissions from these sectors. Using only “medium to high maturity” technologies—carbon capture and storage, or switching to low-carbon energy sources such as renewables, hydrogen or biomass—could already save on average nearly 85 percent of emissions in most industrial sectors, they write in the study
Most of the industry’s emissions come from heat and power use, the study shows. Much of these emissions can be reduce via electrification or the use of clean fuels. Carbon capture and storage meanwhile, could play an important role in cutting emissions that are inherent to certain chemical processes.
In iron production, for instance, iron ore is mixed with a form of coal called coke, and then heated to temperatures of 1,500°C in a blast furnace. The burning of fuels for heat and the conversion of iron oxide ore to iron both create carbon dioxide. Swapping coke with green hydrogen, and using an electric arc furnace that runs on hydrogen, would both reduce emissions.
More novel electrification technologies such as electric steam crackers and electric arc furnaces could cut emissions from the chemical and steel sector’s emissions respectively, the team writes.
Reducing emissions from the chemicals industry, meanwhile, is particularly tricky because a lot of emissions are a result of the actual chemical reactions and processes. Here, carbon capture and storage could be the best bet for reducing emissions.
The Leeds team cautions that they have not taken into account factors such as economics, infrastructure and social issues. So while industrial decarbonisation is “technically possible” cost could be a key barrier for widespread adoption of some technologies. Electrification, for instance, typically has 2-3 times higher operational costs compared to fossil fuel technologies due to the higher cost of electricity in many markets, they point out.
Nonetheless, the study is promising, Gailani said in a press release. It is an important first step to help policy makers understand the impact various low-carbon technologies could have on different industrial sectors. “Our findings represent a major step forward in helping to design industrial decarbonization strategies and that is a really encouraging prospect when it comes to the future health of the planet,” he said.
Source: Ahmed Gailani et al. Assessing the potential of decarbonization options for industrial sectors. Joule, 2024.