New S$4.6 million research programme aims to sustainably convert carbon dioxide into cleaner fuels and useful chemicals

Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and international energy giant Shell will jointly develop novel processes to use carbon dioxide, a byproduct of industrial processes, to produce fuels and chemicals for the energy industry. Supported by the National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF), this S$4.6 million research programme was formalised by all three parties at a ceremony held today.

This three-year research programme aims to electrochemically produce ethanol and n-propanol from carbon dioxide – a gas that is commonly released into the atmosphere. Ethanol and n-propanol can be blended with gasoline to deliver cleaner burning fuels. These two fuels can further be dehydrated to produce ethylene and propylene respectively, which are commercially important molecules that are used in producing polymers that go into everyday products like medical equipment and houseware items. By effectively converting carbon dioxide into other useful products, this research can help reduce carbon emissions and its impact on the environment.

The study will be led by Associate Professor Jason Yeo Boon Siang from the NUS Department of Chemistry, who is one of the authorities in the field of carbon dioxide reduction. Promising results generated in lab experiments will be scaled up in future. This collaboration with Shell’s Long Range Research Group is brought together by the Shell City Solutions Living Lab in Singapore, which helps city stakeholders navigate the energy transition and identify pathways towards a lower carbon future.

This latest research initiative complements NUS’ focus on pioneering sustainable solutions to combat global challenges like climate change, and aligns well with Shell’s overarching ambition to be a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050 or sooner, in step with society and with customers. In November 2020, Shell in Singapore outlined a 10-year plan for how the company could make significant investments in people, assets and capabilities to repurpose its core business and aim to cut its own carbon dioxide emissions in the country by about a third within a decade.

Successful outcomes from this research programme will also support Singapore’s carbon emissions reduction targets, which is a focus area under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2025 Plan.

“Carbon dioxide is a major cause of global warming. Converting it into useful products is a promising strategy to mitigate carbon emissions and close the carbon cycle. For nearly a decade, NUS researchers have been building up fundamental research capabilities in the area of carbon dioxide reduction. We are therefore delighted to receive support from Shell and NRF to further develop and test our research findings in an industry setting. The innovative and commercially viable solutions generated through this research programme will help to build a path for a greener future for generations to come,” said Professor Chen Tsuhan, NUS Deputy President (Research and Technology).

“We are excited to be partnering NUS and NRF on this study. To address climate change, we would need to change the way we use and provide energy. This is an opportunity to testbed a novel approach to better utilise carbon dioxide purposefully for cleaner energy and chemicals. The collaboration will also help to nurture talent in this increasingly important space and is testament to how Shell is partnering with stakeholders to bring about low-carbon solutions for sustainable change,” said Ms Emily Tan, General Manager, City Solutions, Shell Renewables and Energy Solutions.

From carbon dioxide to cleaner fuels and useful chemicals

Electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide is an attractive strategy to utilise and convert carbon dioxide for fuel generation and production of useful chemicals. However, current methods are unable to produce the desired types of chemicals with yields that can meet industrial needs. Hence, there is a growing demand to explore eco-friendly and economically attractive methods to carry out carbon dioxide reduction.

To address this gap, Assoc Prof Yeo and his team at NUS will work closely with the researchers from Shell to discover new catalysts and develop eco-friendly processes to produce liquid fuels like ethanol and n-propanol from carbon dioxide, at a scale that is commercially viable.

Accelerating innovation through academia-industry partnership

Shell will contribute its expertise towards scaling up the promising catalysts and processes developed by the NUS team. Developing high-performing catalysts and processes is crucial, given the relatively low technology readiness level of electrochemical carbon dioxide conversion at the moment. Shell will also conduct in-depth analyses to assess the techno-economic and environmental impact of the processes developed by the NUS team.

As the development and scaling up of electrochemical processes for the synthesis of fuels and chemicals is a relatively new topic globally, this collaboration will serve as an important platform for the research community to develop core capabilities in this emerging field, while promoting a more sustainable energy industry.

The partnership will also aim to nurture a pipeline of talent equipped with the capability and technical know-how to take these carbon reduction technologies to the next level.