Joonas Rauramo explains why electrification is the future of heavy industry
At a time when industrial CO2 emissions desperately need to be curbed, demand for steel, cement, petrochemicals and chemicals is rising across the globe. For industrial manufacturers to continue to provide the world with the products and materials it needs, a revolution in industrial processes must happen.
Fortunately, for almost all basic materials, various technologies designed to replace combustion of fossil fuels and eliminate CO2 emissions from manufacturing are in pilot, near-commercial or even commercial stages of development. There is tremendous opportunity for manufacturers to decarbonise their processes in the near future so that they can continue to meet increasing demand while making sustainable, long-term investments that are cost-efficient and reduce CO2 emissions.
As prices for renewable power sources such as solar and wind power plummet, there is a clear route for manufacturers to transition to zero-emission production: the electrification of industry.
Is Technology Ready For The Electrification Of Industry?
In its latest special report, the IPCC listed the electrification of industry as one of the many measures required for global warming to remain within the 1.5°C target. In this context, electrification refers to replacing CO2-emitting processes with alternatives that run on electricity alone.
Let’s use cement as an example. Cement production accounts for a third of global industrial CO2 emissions, of which a significant share is a result of burning fossil fuel in kilns; a process that has remained largely unchanged for almost a century. The challenge to electrifying cement production is the temperature required in the kiln – beyond 1,500°C – for which the only commercially viable method was burning coal, oil or gas.
Coolbrook has developed Roto Dynamic Reactor (RDR) and RotoDynamic Heater (RDH) technologies that achieve the process temperatures required for industrial production through what is effectively a reverse turbine, where gas is heated to a supersonic velocity and then rapidly slowed in a diffuser to subsonic velocities. The kinetic energy generated from this process is transformed into thermal energy through Coolbrook’s technology and generates temperatures of up to 1,700°C; high enough for the production of cement, steel, petrochemicals and chemicals, and, as a result, can replace the burning of coal and oil-fired burners currently in use.
The small size of the RDR and RDH technologies means they can be retrofitted into existing plants, allowing for hybrid set-ups where they are used for certain processes while fossil fuels continue to be used elsewhere, with the aim of full electrification down the road.
How Far Are We From Co2-Free Electricity?
Electricity generation is rapidly decarbonising, especially in markets with high carbon pricing such as Europe, where greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation fell by 54% between 1990 and 2020. Looking globally, aggregate emissions from electricity generation are forecasted to hit zero in developed economies by 2030, followed by emerging and developing economies by 2040.
By starting the process of electrification now, industrialists can prepare for the impending widespread availability of renewable electricity. The more of their processes are electrified, the more they will be future-proofed for CO2-free production as their electricity supply transitions to renewable sources – if it has not already. By electrifying their processes, industrial manufacturers also incentivise electricity providers to invest in solar and wind energy to meet the increased demand, as these renewable sources are now cheaper than fossil fuels.
The cement, steel, petrochemical and chemical industries have not had to significantly change their processes for a lifetime, but change must start now. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect operations to shut down immediately to facilitate this – especially as the alternatives must still be proven – but by gradually electrifying processes where possible, the production of critical materials can continue while we work towards a true net-zero global economy.
Joonas Rauramo is CEO of Coolbrook