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DONG Energy, Stanford Scientists Carving Out Carbon-Neutral Future

While energy companies continue to forge ahead with plans to reduce CO2 emissions, researchers are uncovering new ways to use the gas a feedstock to create renewable fuels.

While energy companies continue to forge ahead with plans to reduce CO2 emissions, researchers are uncovering new ways to use the gas a feedstock to create renewable fuels.

Danish energy company DONG Energy has garnered a reputation as an industry leader, having ambitiously transformed itself into one of Europe’s cleanest, most sustainable energy companies in just one decade. Over fifty-five percent of the company’s heat and power is now renewable and DONG now ranks 11th on the Carbon Clean 200 list, a ranking of 200 companies from around the world that are profiting from sustainable energy. And Denmark’s largest energy company shows no signs of slowing down.

DONG Energy’s 2023 goal to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 96 percent — which is significantly more ambitious than what is required by the Paris Agreement — has now been approved by the Science Based Target Initiative.

“It is encouraging to see DONG Energy set an emissions reduction target that aligns its business strategies with the rate of decarbonization needed from the energy sector in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change. With its science-based target, DONG Energy is taking a leading role in the transition to the low-carbon future. Its target demonstrates to customers, investors and peers that the company is committed to creating long-term value and playing its part in achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement,” said Alberto Carillo Pineda of the Science Based Targets Initiative.

Of all European energy companies, DONG Energy has come the furthest in the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It is now one of the first energy companies globally to get its greenhouse gas reduction target approved as science-based and is 27 years ahead of schedule compared to the 2-degree scenario for the energy sector as projected by the International Energy Agency.

Investments in offshore wind and sustainable biomass have been the main drivers of DONG’s success. The company aims to provide electricity from offshore wind to around 30 million people and has recently divested of its oil and gas business, affirming its transition into a pure renewable energy company.

“The way we produce energy is changing rapidly. In 10 years, DONG Energy has transformed from one of the most coal-intensive utilities in Europe to a global leader in renewable energy. In 2016, green power and heat accounted for half of our energy generation and we have more than halved our greenhouse gas emissions since 2006,” said Filip Engel, Senior Director of Sustainability and Environment at DONG Energy.

“By 2023, we want to achieve a 96 percent reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions per kilowatt-hour produced compared with 2006. We are very proud to announce…that this target has been approved as being scientifically in line with what we need to do as a company to tackle climate change. With this reassurance, we now know that we are doing our part to support the UN Sustainable Development Goal on climate action as well as the Paris Agreement. That is a big deal to us.”

Meanwhile, scientists at Stanford University may have uncovered a new technique to make ethanol without corn or other crops.

Ethanol sourced from crops has long been criticized for competing with food for farm acreage — to produce the 14 billion gallons of ethanol consumed annually in the U.S., millions of acres of farmland are required. But Stanford’s new technology could offer a valuable solution to the problem. The method has three basic components: water, carbon dioxide and electricity driven through a copper catalyst.

“One of our long-range goals is to produce renewable ethanol in a way that doesn’t impact the global food supply,” said Thomas Jaramillo, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Stanford and of photon science at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, who served as a principal investigator for the study.

Scientists would like to design copper catalysts that selectively convert carbon dioxide into higher-value chemicals and fuels, such as ethanol, with few or no byproducts. Stanford’s latest study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, answers important questions about how these catalysts actually work.

Researchers selected three samples of crystalline copper — copper (100), copper (111) and copper (751) — and compared them for electrocatalytic performance by placing three large electrodes in water, exposing them to carbon dioxide gas and applying a potential to generate an electric current.

“Copper (100), (111) and (751) look virtually identical but have major differences in the way their atoms are arranged on the surface,” said Christopher Hahn, an associate staff scientist at SLAC and co-lead author of the study. “The essence of our work is to understand how these different facets of copper affect electrocatalytic performance.”

Study results pointed to copper (751) as being far more selective to liquid products, such as ethanol and propanol, than those made of copper (100) or (111).

“In copper (100) and (111), the surface atoms are packed close together, like a square grid and a honeycomb, respectively,” said Hahn. “As a result, each atom bonded to many other atoms around it and that tends to make the surface more inert.”

Surface atoms in copper (751) are further apart, making it ideal for partnering with carbon dioxide. “An atom of copper (751) only has two nearest neighbors. But an atom that isn’t bonded to any other atoms is quite unhappy and that makes it want to bind stronger to incoming reactants like carbon dioxide. We believe this is one of the key factors that lead to better selectivity to higher-value products, lie ethanol and propanol,” added Hahn.

With this information, Stanford researchers hope to develop a technology capable of selectively producing carbon-neutral fuels and chemicals at an industrial scale.

“The eye on the prize is to create better catalysts that have game-changing potential by taking carbon dioxide as a feedstock and converting it into much more valuable products using renewable electricity or sunlight directly,” said Jaramillo. “We plan to use this method on nickel and other metals to further understand the chemistry at the surface. We think this study is an important piece of the puzzle and will open up whole new avenues of research for the community.”