Philip Loldrup Fosbøl (first from right) has been giving his expert opinion in Danish media lately. Photo: Thorkild Christensen

Engineering our way out of climate catastrophe

Monday 11 Dec 17
by Frederik Appel Olsen


Philip Loldrup Fosbøl
Associate Professor
DTU Chemical Engineering
+45 45 25 28 68

Around the world, chemical engineers are working on new technologies to help reduce CO2 emissions. So-called geo-engineering is one way to go, but more needs to be done. Chemical engineers are an indispensable part of the solution.

A new invention has caught the attention of the news media: The Swiss company Climeworks’ machine that can draw CO2 out of the air and bury it underground. Many people see it as a technology that can help us reach the goals of UN’s Paris Agreement, of maximum 1.5°C increase in temperature.

This has led many media outlets to get in touch with an expert on the area: Philip Loldrup Fosbøl, Associate Professor at DTU Chemical Engineering.

“If we want to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, then the entire world needs to have a negative CO2 emission by around 2050—removing more CO2 than we emit—we need a technology which can draw CO2 out of the atmosphere. This technology is a part of the toolbox that we need to apply for this to happen,” says Philip Fosbøl to ScienceNordic.

However, one new invention is not a quick fix to all climate-related issues. Besides the fact that special conditions are needed for the new Climeworks technology (like the presence of geothermal energy resources, as, for instance, found on Iceland), emissions still need to be broadly reduced, and more research needs to be done:

“If we are to solve climate change, then we need a lot of different approaches. Machines to remove CO2 from the atmosphere could be a part of the solution, but we should first focus on reducing our emissions,” says Philip Fosbøl.

CO2-related projects at DTU Chemical Engineering

"Geo-engineering technologies that can capture and bind CO2 is one thing, but chemical and biochemical engineers can work in all parts of the greenhouse gas “food chain”"
Philip Loldrup Fosbøl

At any time at DTU Chemical Engineering, there are ongoing projects relating to climate issues.

At the CERE research centre, Associate Professor Nicolas von Solms is heading the project 'Carbon Neutral Energy Production by Hydrate Swapping', started this year and running until 2020. The project will attempt to address two urgent global issues: The future supply of energy for an increasing population, and the threat of catastrophic climate change as a result of global warming caused by greenhouse gases.

With the so-called “swapping” process, where methane in the hydrate is replaced by CO2, the project aims at using CO2 to produce the vast resources of natural gas locked up as solid gas hydrates in permafrost and oceanic margin zones.

Another research project, ‘Sustainable process design with process intensification’, by PhD student Rebecca Frauzem at KT Consortium, also works towards a future with less CO2 emission. The project, completed this year, has developed a sustainable design for capturing and utilizing CO2 – a way of meeting the emission challenge not unlike the case of the Cilmeworks machine. Rebecca Frauzem is defending her PhD thesis in January.

And at the CHEC centre, the project ‘Thermally driven processes for CO2 reduction to fuels and chemical chemical building blocks’ – a collaboration between DTU and Stanford University, running from 2016 to 2024 – aims at developing a catalyst which can convert CO2 into ethanol at a low pressure and temperature.

“Almost all fuels and chemicals contain carbon which today is obtained from fossil fuels. However, CO2 is also a possible source of carbon. So, when we no longer wish to use or do not have any more fossil fuels, the ability to effectively convert CO2 into chemicals could prove to hold great potential in the long run,” says Anker Degn Jensen, Professor at CHEC.

Chemical engineers: An indispensable part of emission solutions

Philip Fosbøl may be a leading expert of geo-engineering technology in Denmark but, as he says, geo-engineering is only one part of a greater scheme:

“Geo-engineering technologies that can capture and bind CO2 is one thing, but chemical and biochemical engineers can work in all parts of the greenhouse gas “food chain”: In the processes before, during and after emission. We look at how to convert CO2 into a biofuel by catalytic conversion. We also look at increasing efficiency of energy resources which is an important part of the 2020 climate goals. Or we simply look at new technologies that prevent emissions in the first place,” he says.

Philip Fosbøl points to a CERE BioCO2 project, ‘Biogas upgrading for high-purity CO2 distribution’. Today the relatively high-purity CO2 from the upgrading is emitted as a waste product into the atmosphere. Instead of emitting the CO2, the aim of the project is to turn it into a valuable green product, BioCO2, which can be sold as an additional commercial product by the biogas producer.

This goes to show that chemical and biochemical engineers have many cards on their hands in tackling issues related to climate change and emission of greenhouse gasses. As Philip Fosbøl puts it:

“The CO2 that a project such as BioCO2 is aiming to produce could be suitable for food, biofuel, medicine production, and welding purposes. This shows that what we do here, at the department, stretches far into all areas of industry, based on ideas of reducing emission- and other climate issues.”

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