Carbon net zero in manufacturing: seven steps in seven years?

The appetite for carbon capture and clean-tech projects to accelerate progress to net zero in line with UN targets, is substantial.

The UK government has shortlisted 20 carbon capture, usage and storage projects for potential support, while the European Union is investing more than €1.8 billion in a variety of initiatives ranging from battery manufacturing and low-carbon cement production to synthetic sustainable aviation fuel.

The signs may look encouraging, but markets are experiencing significant energy price and supply volatility which adds to the difficulties of planning for a more sustainable manufacturing industry. How should asset-intensive, high-energy-consuming industries such as aerospace, fertilizer or steel production, navigate towards a low or no-carbon future employing new technologies?

Digitalization and the use of advanced software will be utterly essential to build into plans for the new technologies that reduce, remove, recycle or sequester carbon. For these reasons, businesses need to effectively capitalize on the enormous growth in volume and complexity of data in energy-intensive industries.

They can then can deploy sophisticated modelling techniques to chart the way forward, making extremely important strategic decisions on the basis of evidence and accurate forecasting. This will achieve the right balance between carbon reduction and profitability. Businesses can also factor in energy security requirements, which have become more pressing in the last 12 months, given the Ukraine war.

Sooner or later all major manufacturing organizations will face the challenges of decarbonizing, so it is worth outlining a series of steps enabling them to grasp the full potential of processes for CO2 reduction or capture.

Ron Beck

Step one – gain a more detailed view of your emissions
Many businesses lack precision when it comes to knowing what they emit or use. They need a real-time view. They must be able to identify the bad actors emitting or generating significant amounts of CO2. Once an organization has achieved this, it should use solutions, including digital predictive models, to explore the options for reductions, using insights that support effective real-time decisions. What is important is that any solution must be auditable to meet the requirements of regulators and investors. Advanced software makes this simple, transparent and credible despite the complexities.

Step two – achieving greater energy-efficiency
Energy-efficiency is the lowest-hanging fruit and closer examination frequently reveals that companies have not executed as well in this area as they thought. Using digitalization to make energy use more efficient will deliver further gains of up to 20 per cent, both reducing CO2 and increasing margins.

Step three – carbon capture and removal
This is another significant step that can deliver another 20 per cent in reductions. One option is point-source carbon capture and storage (CCS), removing carbon from flue gases. Another is direct air capture (DAC), which takes carbon out of the atmosphere at specialized plants using huge fans and chemistry. This is at lower concentration than carbon capture, but whereas CCS take a company to zero, DAC could, by removing more carbon that a company emits, take it below zero (called ‘carbon removal’ by the UN). Currently, however, carbon capture is expensive, and transport, storing and monitoring the captured carbon (sequestered in former North Sea oil and gas fields, for example) are all challenging. Subsidies and carbon offsets currently make the costs acceptable, but embedding digital technology is likely to lead to economic breakthroughs.

Step four – switching to low carbon feedstocks
Low-carbon inputs are an obvious source of reductions for manufacturing, especially through bio feedstock utilizations. Here is it possible to drive emissions down another ten percent in typical chemical and refining settings.

Step five – electrification of process equipment
This step is for organizations running equipment on diesel, natural gas or the conventional power grid. They can plan to switch to green electricity or geo-thermal energy, potentially delivering another 15 or 20 per cent reductions in plants that are energy intensive, such as refineries.

Step six – incorporate renewables and switch to microgrids
Organizations need to use renewables such as solar and wind energy from their own sites or from industrial producers. Microgrids have also become a significant feature of green energy. These are small electricity distribution grids where the site is directly managing and optimizing its own sources, making best possible use of electricity and ensuring manufacturing continues if public power grids go into brownouts or blackouts.

Step seven – the hydrogen economy
Hydrogen is an exciting prospect as a clean alternative to fossil fuels, but the economics remain challenging. Will organizations be prepared to pay a green premium for it? Europe has moved more slowly on this than several other parts of the world such as the Middle East, India and Australia.

All these steps are achievable, although electrification of very high energy processes such as ethylene cracking or steel production could be more long-term. Regulatory uncertainty about emissions is also a factor that inhibits investment in new sources of energy along with differences in definitions of bio feedstocks between trading blocs.

We can also see how the UK and Europe are at structural and demographic disadvantages compared with many Asian economies. The retirement of skilled workers in the UK and Europe is a factor, whereas south Asia and the Far East have larger skills bases, agilely form consortiums and feature growing manufacturing capacity.

Regardless of location, all industries will have to shorten innovation cycles. The picture will be different once organizations are more fully digitalized and can for example, run thousands of different ideas through digital twin design technologies, modelling far faster than the months it takes to build a pilot plant.

Subsurface modelling is a good example of how highly advanced technology can transform the viability of sequestering carbon in former oil and gas fields. Digitalization will transform how manufacturing adapts and incorporates radical new carbon reduction techniques – from conceptualization to design, implementation and monitoring.

None of these steps can by itself take care of carbon-reduction, but it is certain digitalization will be essential as manufacturers strive to maintain profit levels as they chart their individual paths towards UN targets for carbon reduction.

Ron Beck
Ron Beck is Senior Director, Solutions Marketing at Aspen Technology (AspenTech) a global leader in asset optimization software. Its solutions address complex, industrial environments where it is critical to optimize the asset design, operation and maintenance lifecycle. AspenTech uniquely combines decades of process modelling expertise with artificial intelligence. Its purpose-built software platform automates knowledge work and builds sustainable competitive advantage by delivering high returns over the entire asset lifecycle. As a result, companies in capital-intensive industries can maximize uptime and push the limits of performance, running their assets safer, greener, longer and faster.