How will the bio, circular and hydrogen economy intersect?
What do the bio-, circular- and hydrogen-based economies have in common? What do we know about how they will fit together in the future - and what should we know?
The answers to questions above depend on the discipline of the respondent. You can see this as soon as the conversation between a chemist, a policy analyst and an energy scientist begins. At the table are professor Ulla Lassi from the University of Oulu, researcher Kalle Aro from the Natural Resources Institute of Finland (LUKE) and associate professor Jouni Havukainen from LUT University.
All are connected to the JUST ENERGY programme funded by the Strategic Research Council, which started in the autumn, and within it to the JustH2Transit research consortium, where the topic of the intersections of bio-, circular- and hydrogen-based economy will be explored over the next few years. The consortium, led by the University of Oulu, includes LUKE and LUT University, as well as VTT and Akordi.
Different disciplines define the current state of research in different ways
The very way we perceive what we currently know differs from one discipline to another.
In chemistry and energy technology research, the question is which technologies have only just been verified in the laboratory, which are already in commercial use and which lie somewhere in between. We talk about the technology readiness level, which can be assessed on a nine-point scale.
In policy research, on the other hand, the level of maturity is the identification of which theories enjoy the support of the majority of the scientific community at any given time.
Technological developments linking the bio-, circular- and hydrogen-based economy
Lassi sees the bio-, circular- and hydrogen-economy intersecting, for example in the development of battery materials made from bio-based materials. She sees biomass-based materials being taken to green batteries. For example, technology developments in bio-based electrolytes and new anode materials have already been successfully validated at laboratory level, partly through piloting.
As another example, Lassi cites the thermocatalytic decomposition of biomethane, which yields hydrogen and valuable chemicals such as solid carbon as end products. This can also be used, for example, in the production of battery materials.
As an example of the development of energy technologies, Havukainen highlights biological methanation, where methane is produced from captured bio-based carbon dioxide and hydrogen. A biocatalytic process is used to combine the two. In terms of technological maturity, the process is already at a commercially viable stage. There is also an existing infrastructure for the distribution of the final product, with immediate potential to reduce emissions, for example from shipping.
Lassi provides more examples of the beneficial use of paper industry side streams. Tannins and lignin can be foamed into electrodes that can be used for microbiological electrochemical synthesis. The addition of pulp production by-products methanol and carbon dioxide to the process produces valuable platform chemicals that can be used in a wide range of industrial applications. In addition, the process yields hydrogen. At present, however, only in the laboratory.
Social research analyses the past to anticipate the future
Aro would also love to have a laboratory for policy research. But social transition research needs to use past transitions to assess where ongoing developments might lead. The true outcomes will only be seen once the transitions have taken place.
Currently, the leading theory of transitions is known as the "Multi-level perspective on socio-technical transitions (MLP)". It seeks to explain socio-technical transitions as phenomena, but also to analyse the sub-sets that make up the phenomenon, the movement between them and the dynamics within the system.
Aro presents research results that are known to challenge the bio-, circular- and hydrogen-economy.
In the bioeconomy, such information is that increased use of renewable materials does not always seem to reduce the consumption of virgin materials. The challenge for the circular economy, according to Aro, is that the materials used are not always renewable and there are not enough recycled materials - more virgin materials are needed in the system anyway.
Aro sees as the current challenge for the hydrogen economy that there are so many possible developments. Only in hindsight will we see which countries and companies were able to anticipate how hydrogen will be used in the future and shape the market to support it through regulation and business development.
What should we know about the intersections of the bio, circular and hydrogen economy?
Aro's colleague at LUKE, principal scientist Saija Rasi, is leading a work package in the JustH2Transit project that will specifically address the question of the intersections of the bio-, circular- and hydrogen economy. According to her, we should know how best to use bio-based carbon, which is hoped to replace fossil coal, in renewable or clean hydrogen-based products. This should help us to determine where to locate production plants and what raw materials to transport from one place to another.
It is easy for Havukainen to join the debate on the location of production plants and the design of transmission lines for electricity, hydrogen and possibly carbon dioxide. Eastern and south-eastern Finland, where Havukainen's research chamber is located, produces half of Finland's bio-based carbon dioxide. It is needed for many new end products (P2X products) produced with zero emission electricity. The use of carbon dioxide for P2X production in Eastern Finland requires good transmission links for either hydrogen or electricity, as the construction of new wind-based electricity generation in the region is constrained by Defence Forces radar issues.
In Western Finland, on the other hand, wind power development is already slowing down because of a lack of demand for electricity. Carbon dioxide transport from east to west to enable P2X generation and increase demand for clean electricity has so far been less discussed. Rasi points out that the use of bio-based carbon is hampered by the typically small size and dispersed nature of its sources across Finland.
Lassi suggests that, in addition to synthetic fuels, eastern Finland should look at the potential for producing chemicals and other carbon-based products from pulp industry by-products for green batteries.
From reaction to anticipation through research
Aro believes that we should know what the pain points and friction points are between the bio-, circular- and hydrogen-based economy. We should also try to anticipate the environmental, economic and energy system impacts before plants are built.
At the moment, Aro says, it seems that the support that the bioeconomy enjoys will continue as a support to the hydrogen economy. It is seen as adding more good to the same continuum. At some point, however, conflicting interests may arise. The earlier they are identified, the faster they can be reconciled. In this work, however, Aro argues that researchers should also remain aware of the impact of their own scenario work and public statements on the developments they study.
Finland should be better able to commercialise its research results
Lassi does not see a lack of scientific expertise in Finland in relation to current developments. What we should know better, she says, is how to commercialise research results.
Innovation is created at the interface between different scientific disciplines and industry. In Lassi’s opinion, we lack the platforms, processes and funding to commercialise them.
At the same time, we are missing the feed-back from what we learn in commercialisation back into science: what knowledge is confirmed as sustainable in practice and what should be studied next? This means an opportunity to create new jobs, both in emerging companies and in the research institutions that work with them.
How can JustH2Transit help to reconcile the bio, circular and hydrogen economy?
The JustH2Transit project will explore the intersections between the hydrogen economy, the bioeconomy and the circular economy, identify stakeholders and potential "enablers and challenges", and consider ways to make better use of decentralised resources. The project will also seek answers on how to make new approaches and processes equitable and products socially, technologically and environmentally sustainable.
The panellists summarise that, if successful, the JustH2Transit project will map material flows relevant to the bio-, circular and hydrogen economy along the entire value chain, up to the end products of highest value. It will catalogue known technical resources, natural resources, economic and political factors and build possible futures based on these. It also identifies the interdependencies between different visions in terms of material use, so as not to "chop down the same tree several times".
Ultimately, the project's researchers want to help Finland navigate the complex future system in the directions we want to go, rather than drifting in directions we don't hope to go.