With the significant decline in costs of producing solar and wind power, electrification is increasingly being looked at as a better solution than carbon capture and hydrogen to solve the world’s climate change problems. Automobiles are headed the electric way but this article shows why even heavy polluting industries such as chemicals, steel, cement, etc are looking to electrification to decarbonise. The article quotes the CEO of the world’s largest chemical manufacturer BASF who recently declared “the decarbonisation of energy-intensive industries can only be achieved through electrification”.

“BASF has joined a consortium including SABIC, a Saudi chemicals firm, and Linde, a European engineering firm, to develop an electric furnace that can generate heat intense enough for the chemical reactions that are their bread and butter. These firms are not the only recent converts to the electrification of industry. On February 8th Rio Tinto and BHP, both gargantuan mining firms, announced a joint effort to build Australia’s first electric smelter for iron ore. Fortescue, another mining giant, is introducing all-electric excavators and mining lorries, while Spain’s Roca Group recently unveiled the first electric industrial tunnel kiln for ceramics. Such innovations offer a new path to slowing global warming which may in many cases prove quicker and easier than approaches based on CCS and hydrogen.”

As one would expect, there are whole host of startups giving a shot at solving for industrial carbon emissions through electrification. Foremost among the technologies under development is the heat pump.

“For temperatures of up to 200°C, the technology attracting most attention is not the electric kettle but the industrial heat pump. Heat pumps, like refrigerators, move heat from one place to another. In a fridge the heat is removed from the inside (keeping the contents cooler) and dumped outside (making the kitchen a little warmer). Heat pumps, which are becoming increasingly common for domestic heating, take heat from outside and move it inside. Because the amount of energy needed to move heat this way is lower than the amount needed to heat things up directly, this can lead to big energy savings. And as the technology improves and sales increase, prices are falling.

Some companies are betting that what works in the home can work in the factory, too. One such is AtmosZero, a startup that aims to reduce emissions at New Belgium Brewing, an American beermaker. AtmosZero is installing a heat pump that will soon replace one of the gas-fired boilers at New Belgium’s brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. Like most industrial firms over the past 150 years, New Belgium burns fossil fuel to produce steam, which in its case then heats the ingredients required to make beer. AtmosZero’s heat pump will allow it to produce that steam without any burning. Since the electricity used to run the pump will be renewable in the future, that eliminates most greenhouse-gas emissions from the process. It is also more efficient, consuming less energy overall. And because the heat pump transfers warmth to water, just as in a conventional boiler, the equipment can be slotted into New Belgium’s existing factory, without the need for a complete overhaul.

…Kobe Steel, a big Japanese industrial firm, sells commercial heat pumps capable of producing high-pressure steam at 165°C very efficiently. Heaten, a Norwegian startup boasting investment from the venture arm of Shell, a British oil giant, has developed a durable, low-maintenance heat-pump that can harness waste industrial heat to reach temperatures of up to 200°C. That makes it attractive for industries from pharmaceuticals to textiles that need middling heat.

…A study published in January by the Renewable Thermal Collaborative (rtc), an industry consortium, finds it costs no more to run a heat pump than a gas boiler when trying to attain temperatures below 130°C. That would make heat pumps competitive for 29% of industrial demand for heat, without any subsidy or technological improvements. The rtc expects heat pumps for temperatures of up to 200°C to become competitive by 2030. Harald Bauer of McKinsey expects that, in time, heat pumps will be able to reach temperatures of 500°C.”

The article talks about other technologies under development such as thermal storage – a battery of metal and bricks that stores heat and is cheaper than electric batteries and other innovations within the chemical and steel industries with electrification at the heart of it.

Whilst carbon capture and hydrogen also raised hopes in the past, will electrification deliver on its promise?

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