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Issue 9, 2011
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Methanol production from CO2 using solar-thermal energy: process development and techno-economic analysis

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We describe a novel solar-based process for the production of methanol from carbon dioxide and water. The system utilizes concentrated solar energy in a thermochemical reactor to reenergize CO2 into CO and then water gas shift (WGS) to produce syngas (a mixture of CO and H2) to feed a methanol synthesis reactor. Aside from the thermochemical reactor, which is currently under development, the full system is based on well-established industrial processes and component designs. This work presents an initial assessment of energy efficiency and economic feasibility of this baseline configuration for an industrial-scale methanol plant. Using detailed sensitivity calculations, we determined that a break-even price of the methanol produced using this approach would be 1.22 USD/kg; which while higher than current market prices is comparable to other renewable-resource-based alternatives. We also determined that if solar power is the sole primary energy source, then an overall process energy efficiency (solar-to-fuel) of 7.1% could be achieved, assuming the solar collector, solar thermochemical reactor sub-system operates at 20% sunlight to chemical energy efficiency. This 7.1% system efficiency is significantly higher than can currently be achieved with photosynthesis-based processes, and illustrates the potential for solar thermochemical based strategies to overcome the resource limitations that arise for low-efficiency approaches. Importantly, the analysis here identifies the primary economic drivers as the high capital investment associated with the solar concentrator/reactor sub-system, and the high utility consumption for CO/CO2 separation. The solar concentrator/reactor sub-system accounts for more than 90% of the capital expenditure. A life cycle assessment verifies the opportunity for significant improvements over the conventional process for manufacturing methanol from natural gas in global warming potential, acidification potential and non-renewable primary energy requirement provided balance of plant utilities for the solar thermal process are also from renewable (solar) resources. The analysis indicates that a solar-thermochemical pathway to fuels has significant potential, and points towards future research opportunities to increase efficiency, reduce balance of plant utilities, and reduce cost from this baseline. Particularly, it is evident that there is much room for improvement in the development of a less expensive solar concentrator/reactor sub-system; an opportunity that will benefit from the increasing deployment of concentrated solar power (electricity). In addition, significant advances are achievable through improved separations, combined CO2 and H2O splitting, different end products, and greater process integration and distribution. The baseline investigation here establishes a methodology for identifying opportunities, comparison, and assessment of impact on the efficiency, lifecycle impact, and economics for advanced system designs.

Graphical abstract: Methanol production from CO2 using solar-thermal energy: process development and techno-economic analysis

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Article information

18 Mar 2011
04 Jul 2011
First published
02 Aug 2011

Energy Environ. Sci., 2011,4, 3122-3132
Article type

Methanol production from CO2 using solar-thermal energy: process development and techno-economic analysis

J. Kim, C. A. Henao, T. A. Johnson, D. E. Dedrick, J. E. Miller, E. B. Stechel and C. T. Maravelias, Energy Environ. Sci., 2011, 4, 3122
DOI: 10.1039/C1EE01311D

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