Materials & Chemicals Sector Takeaways – Cleantech Forum Europe and Cleantech Forum San Francisco

Cleantech Group’s forums meant our team and all involved had a busy start to the year, and a very different feel to last year’s event. Beyond COVID-19, there was discussion around record investments in cleantech, a recent boom Cleantech SPACs and the potential impact of the new US administration. Some of the key discussion topics associated with Materials and Chemicals included:

  • Circular carbon, with Carbon Engineering awarded 2021 Cleantech 100 North America Company of the year
  • Clean energy molecules, hydrogen and beyond
  • Critical materials for an energy transition.

Here’s a taste of a discussion about clean energy molecules

The forums were a perfect intersection of experts, innovators and investors with knowledge of these topics. Here are my three main takeaways.

1.   Carbon is here to stay, despite decarbonization

Carbon is an essential part of our lives and we are going to continue to need it. However, usage needs to be guided by circular economy principles which maximize resource efficiency – including recycling applications. Although interest in Direct Air Capture Carbon continues to increase, industrial emissions remain a relatively low-cost source of carbon in comparison. Technologies, like those demonstrated by Svante, enable the capture at decreasing costs. One of the near-term challenges remains the market pull for CO2 utilization yet technologies like Synhelion’s, demonstrate there are effective solutions for industrial emitters and consumers such as the aviation industry.

Many utilization solutions face challenges around cost and ultimately there needs to be policy mechanisms in place which help to address the cost of CO2 in the atmosphere. This year, big tech has become increasingly involved in carbon removal or reduction technologies, either through investment or offset purchase through companies like CarbonCure. This may help address the green premium, in the cases where policy has not been sufficient.

2.   Clean energy molecules can transform energy systems, but you still need a lot of hydrogen

Clean energy molecules like methanol and ammonia will be essential for de-fossilizing sectors that are hard to electrify including aviation, maritime transport and specific industrial processes. They are also set to play an important role for energy storage and transportation, and as process feedstocks.

During the forum, innovators showcased technology for production of various clean energy molecules but ultimately production requires a lot of hydrogen or clean energy. To enable production of clean energy molecules at scale, we might need to look beyond green hydrogen, or at least to production in areas of the world with potential to deploy renewable energy technologies at scale.

3.    You cannot have batteries without battery materials

Electrification of transportation needs effective batteries and most contain critical raw materials – many of which face supply constraints. Recovery of materials can be cost effective and can be an important contributor for meeting this demand, yet effective process technology is needed to recover these materials safely and without significant loss.

Challenges posed to the industry are logistical, since volume is required to make materials recycling efficient, but transportation of batteries is expensive. Solutions posed by recyclers in including Li-Cycle’s use of hub and spoke models and sourcing of battery material scrap help to address these challenges.