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Scientists Create New Material To Cut Emissions From Oil Refining

Tsvetana Paraskova

As the world grapples with containing carbon emissions to fight climate change, scientists have created a new material that has the potential to reduce emissions from crude oil refining and make the process more efficient.   

Researchers at the University of Sydney say they have created a new silica-aluminum material with the strongest acidity of all silica-aluminum materials created up to this point. This material, acting as a catalyst in the petroleum refining process and in biofuel manufacturing, could reduce the carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) during crude oil refining by up to 28 percent, University of Sydney scientists said last week.

The researchers, led by Associate Professor Jun Huang, say in their paper published in Nature Communications that the new silica-aluminum material could make the catalytic process more efficient in a wide range of applications, “including acid and multifunctional catalysis.”

The new material could help reduce emissions from one of the most carbon intensive industries—oil refining—at a time when the world moves to curb emissions and advance the energy transition.

The share of renewable energy sources and electric vehicles (EVs) in power and transportation rises and will continue to rise, but fuels and petrochemicals will continue to be key sources of energy and consumer products in the coming decades.

Oil refining will be a major industry for decades to come, and it is in this area that the researchers at the University of Sydney believe they could help with emissions.

“This new catalyst can significantly reduce the amount of CO2 emitted by oil refineries, which has the potential to make the fossil fuel industry much greener and cleaner,” Associate Professor Huang from the Faculty of Engineering and Sydney Nano said in a statement.

The oil refining industry is the second biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions behind power plants, according to estimates cited by the scientists.

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“This new catalyst offers some exciting prospects, if it were to be adopted by the entire oil refinery industry, we could potentially see a reduction of over 20 percent in CO2 emissions during the oil refinement process. That’s the equivalent of double Australia’s crude oil consumption, over 2 million barrels of oil per day,” the researchers say.

This new catalyst could also help biomass production, and biomass such as algae could become part of the sustainable energy solutions, according to the scientists, who are now working on manufacturing their new material on an industrial scale.

Until new catalysts or other technology become available at a large scale and prove feasible in cutting emissions from oil refining, refineries will continue to be large carbon emitters and environmentalists will continue to call out the industry for its contribution to climate change.

According to the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit watchdog organization, 10 refineries in the United States emitted cancer-causing benzene into nearby communities at concentrations above federal action levels in 2019.  

The same organization said last month that the expansion of petrochemical and plastics plants, due to the rising oil and gas production in the U.S., could raise emissions from petrochemicals and plastics by 80 percent by the end of 2025.  

U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions would be relatively flat through 2050, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) said in its Annual Energy Outlook 2020. In the reference case, assuming no major law and regulation changes, CO2 emissions will initially decrease through the early 2030s and then rise by 2050, when total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions would be 4 percent lower than 2019 levels.  

Globally, CO2 emissions remained flat in 2019, despite expectations of another rise, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its ‘Global CO2 emissions in 2019’ report on Monday.

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Following two consecutive years of growth, global CO2 emissions stayed unchanged at 33 gigatons last year, thanks to renewables expansion, coal-to-gas switch, higher nuclear power generation, milder weather, and slower economic growth in some emerging markets, the IEA noted.

The U.S. saw the largest emissions decline on a country basis, with a fall of 140 million tons, or 2.9 percent, the IEA has estimated.

“A 15% reduction in the use of coal for power generation underpinned the decline in overall US emissions in 2019,” the IEA said.

“We now need to work hard to make sure that 2019 is remembered as a definitive peak in global emissions, not just another pause in growth,” Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director, said in a statement.

By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com

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