The main problem, challenge addressed by the research project

The European chemical industry is one of the largest manufacturing sectors and provides important materials used widely in many other fields - but it is also one of the most polluting ones. Most of these chemicals are derived from fossil fuels, using processes that generate large amounts of CO2 that are released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. 

The European Union has committed to very challenging climate change targets and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals also include a focus on developing sustainable industries. To meet these goals, new and disruptive technologies are needed – simply improving current technologies will not be enough.

Objectives of the research project

FlowPhotoChem is developing new and better ways to produce chemicals using carbon dioxide (CO2) and sunlight. There is great potential to replace much of the fossil fuels used today to make fuels and useful chemicals, by using solar energy and advanced catalysts to convert CO2 into, for example, ethylene, which is a precursor for plastics. FlowPhotoChem addresses the key challenges to achieving this – more effective solar light management, more efficient reactors, and more durable catalysts.

The most important activities of the research project

FlowPhotoChem is building and demonstrating new technology to convert CO2 into ethylene using concentrated sunlight. 

The project will:

  • Develop three types of modular flow reactors (photo-electrochemical (PEC), photo-catalytic (PC) and electrochemical (EC)),
  • Use advanced computer modelling to find more affordable and durable catalysts and optimise reactor performance,
  • Develop an integrated demonstrator reactor from the modular flow reactors to produce ethylene, a high value chemical, using solar energy and CO2

Expected results, TRL

FlowPhotoChem focuses on developing innovative, sustainable ways to manufacture ethylene, a chemical used in producing the widely used plastic polyethylene and with a growing market demand. The production of ethylene will serve as a proof-of-concept – it will be possible in the future to form other chemicals using the technologies developed in the project. Rather than producing CO2, FlowPhotoChem will develop an integrated demonstrator reactor that consumes CO2 and uses concentrated sunlight to form ethylene. Ethylene production in this way is energy-demanding thus, novel catalysts, membranes and reactors will be needed to make the process work. Three types of modular flow reactors will be developed and then integrated into the demonstrator: PEC, PC and EC. New catalysts and membranes will be developed that are cheaper and more durable than today’s best options. Advanced computer modelling will be used for catalyst development, as well as to configure, optimise and manage the reactor performance.

Project partners – academic and industrial

  • National University of Ireland Galway
  • Polytechnic University of Valencia
  • Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia (ICIQ)
  • Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne (EPFL)
  • Johnson Matthey
  • Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin (HZB)
  • Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR)
  • Leitat
  • ThalesNano Inc.
  • University of Amsterdam (UvA)
  • Kyambogo University (KYA)
  • Pintail Ltd

A possible future research avenue, new projects and cooperation possibilities

The results and experience gathered during the project serve as solid bedrocks for a future chemical industrial process. Successful fulfillment of the project might therefore result in establishing collaborations with industrial partners, that are interested in the implementation of this technology. 

The cells developed and the knowledge gathered during the project will be exploited for the development of novel industrial electrochemical processes. This includes the partial electrochemical oxidation of methane and the electrochemical reduction of molecular nitrogen.