Partly under the impetus of the Flemish Moonshot programme and the European Green Deal, VITO is continuing to build its know-how and expertise on (captured) CO2 and (green) hydrogen. Thanks to its multidisciplinary involvement, this is a very broad and integrated story for VITO and an important asset. The record number of projects with VITO as a collaborator that were launched last year illustrates the success of this cross-thematic research programme.

CO2 and hydrogen, respectively the most important greenhouse gas and a crucial sustainable energy carrier, are the subject of various research and study activities at VITO/EnergyVille. Within the theme 'sustainable chemistry', for example, techniques are being researched and improved to convert CO2 - captured from industrial emissions or from the air - electrochemically into synthetic fuels and base chemicals, whereby hydrogen can also be produced.

From the point of view of the 'sustainable materials' theme, the focus could be on solid adsorbents to improve CO2 capture and on methods to incorporate the CO2 into end products (such as building materials). Finally, in the 'sustainable energy' theme, models and scenarios are drawn up and elaborated with regard to the value chains for CO2 and hydrogen.

The know-how and expertise within VITO/EnergyVille is therefore not only of a technical nature, but also of a modelling and advisory nature. The latter is put into practice by the TEA team (techno-economic analyses), which assesses the impact of technical parameters on the economic feasibility of a development. By doing so, this team gives direction to the R&D process. Partly because of this expertise, VITO has recently become involved in the rollout of some of the upcoming so-called Moonshot projects, with which the Flemish government (via VLAIO and Catalisti) wants to stimulate the transition to a low-carbon industry.

No longer everyone on their own island

“The fact that our activities concerning CO2 and hydrogen bring together different thematic areas in a very integrated way is our strength for the outside world”, says Metin Bulut of VITO. “The technical and economic results and insights that emerge from this are a great added value for this research field. Equally valuable are the analyses we perform on environmental impact and on value chains, as much as possible from an overarching perspective. This perspective is synchronised with regional and European roadmaps and with context analyses, where the aim is to achieve decarbonised energy generation and a defossilised industry. It is actually a fairly recent approach where everyone is no longer working on their own island.”

Last year, no fewer than seven projects on CO2 and hydrogen were launched with VITO involvement, sometimes in a leading role. The projects vary widely, not only in terms of content but also in terms of development stage. Bulut: “We do not only develop new technologies, but also carry out demonstrations on a pilot scale. In this way, we demonstrate that the upscaling of a previously developed technology is feasible and can have a meaningful economic impact.”

Within the Hyve consortium, VITO is joining forces with imec and several major industrial partners to produce green hydrogen via electrolysis (using renewable energy sources such as sun and wind). In addition, both research organisations are working together on ‘power-to-x’, in which VITO's expertise centre on electrochemistry is closely involved.

“We are building on existing technology around CO2 and hydrogen in order to now also synthesise all kinds of industrially important molecules in the next phase”, Bulut continues. Our rich expertise in applications and the integration of key components in the electrolysis processes is an added value. Imec, for its part, is very strong in the development of new materials.” At the same time, VITO also focuses on 3D printing technology for the design of carriers of catalysts for the conversion of CO2 with heat and in the presence of hydrogen. This takes place within the framework of a European H2020 project called CO2FOKUS.

VITO has started her second year as coordinator of the HORIZON 2020 project CO2Fokus, in this project new technologies are being developed for the direct conversion of CO2 en H2 for use in industrial CO2 point sources of large petrochemical plants. The project used 3D printed reactors and a solid oxid electrolyser stack for the supply of H2.

Towards an industrial electrolyzer

ECO2Fuel is another European project, more specifically from the Green Deal. It involves the development of an electrolysis plant with a capacity of 50 kilowatts. The electrolyzer, which should be ready in 2023, will be able to make 20 tonnes of end product (e.g. alcohols, ethylene or syngas) from 30 tonnes of CO2 on an annual basis. Such scale can help electrolyzers bridge the notorious valley of death so they can be implemented at an industrial relevant level. The plant could therefore serve as a blueprint for the development of a 1-megawatt electrolyzer. ECO2Fuel builds further upon the Procura and Loter.2M projects, which realised a 5-kilowatt electrolyzer.

In the T-REX project, the electrolysis process is examined at component level. How stable is the conversion of CO2? What is the influence of impurities? These kinds of questions are not only important from a technological point of view, but also from an economic one. “If we want to make fuels such as methanol and ethanol from CO2, we need to be able to substantiate how usable they are, what their carbon footprint is and how the development of electrified conversion processes positions itself against existing sustainability roadmaps”, says Bulut. The stability of the electrolysis and of the electrocatalysts that are added to speed up the process is also being studied by B-Hyve, a Belgian academic network that is supported in part by funds from the federal government's Energy Transition Fund.

The same electrocatalysts are also being studied in another initiative: the CAPTIN project (within the Flemish Moonshot programme). In this project, integrated concepts of CO2 capture and electrochemical conversion to methanol and CO are investigated. Again, VITO provides (among other things) the techno-economic analyses for both its own development and that of the academic partners. In another project, called CLUE, the application is studied with a view to the production of ethylene.

Major expansion of IP portfolio

ICO2CH is another Moonshot project. In this project, the production of hydrogen is linked to the capture of CO2 from industrial emissions. Other projects on hydrogen production, where VITO is collaborating within the framework of The Blue Cluster, are INTENSSE-H2 and H2-Mhytic, in which the feasibility of an electrolysis concept based on integrated membrane technology and the development of intensified electrolysers are being investigated.

"Electrolysis is a process that links many of these projects. The TEMPEL project (also Moonshot) attempts to further increase its efficiency. We want to raise the current efficiency of 70 per cent to over 90 per cent. This is important because electricity consumption is a major operational cost", says Bulut.

VITO also focuses on innovative technologies for the production of ammonium which is a preferred H2 vector. Thanks to the very efficient hydrogen storage it is an alternative zero emission fuel, and ORACLE and HYSTRAM optimise existing technologies to enable a more decentralized storage and conversion of ammonium.  

The technology development within all these projects will allow VITO's already impressive IP portfolio to expand even further. The strength of VITO, as mentioned earlier, is its overarching perspective. Bulut: “Our focus is very much on integration, not only of technology development but also of know-how based on modelling and context. Think, for example, of the work of our TEA team. In the end, we arrive at processes and systems that are not only productive and economically viable, but also have a significant environmental impact in applications and value chains, with a relevant positioning towards all sustainability strategies.”

Because of the current boom in activities related to CO2 and hydrogen, VITO is eagerly looking for new employees to strengthen the various expertise teams with their knowledge and creativity.