Towards Carbon Neutrality
Global warming due to the increase in greenhouse gases has been causing climate change on a global scale. Recognizing the urgent need for concrete measures, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged in his policy speech in October 2020 that Japan would achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The United States and Europe also aim to achieve it by 2050, and China by 2060.
With an eye to this ambitious goal, Yokogawa also has set its mid-term sustainability targets for 2030 and is working hard to achieve them. Under the theme of “Towards Carbon Neutrality,” we interviewed four experts about how the Innovation Center will help achieve this goal.
Electrification and Hydrogen Are Key to Achieving Carbon Neutrality
― Mr. Fujita, what are the current trends toward carbon neutrality?
There are two approaches to achieving carbon neutrality: reducing CO2 emissions and utilizing CO2. Electrification is a promising way to reduce CO2 emissions. For example, the automobile industry has been taking various measures to improve fuel efficiency and is now switching the motive power of vehicles from thermal energy to electricity in order to reduce CO2 emissions further. Meanwhile, in the process industry, naphtha crackers need a large amount of heat, which is generated through the combustion of fossil fuels, and so a consortium is working on electrifying them. Many companies are also trying to obtain electricity from renewable energy sources.
The key to CO2 utilization is hydrogen. The Cabinet Office set up a study group on bottleneck issues, which examined CO2 utilization and solutions to the issues. The group concluded that since CO2 can be combined with hydrogen to form hydrocarbon which can then be used as a fuel, CO2 can be recycled as long as large amounts of hydrogen are available. Focusing on electrification, renewable energy, and hydrogen, many countries are making various efforts to achieve carbon neutrality.
Commercializing Control, Monitoring, and Diagnosis of Battery Status
ー Technologically, it is not easy to store electricity. Mr. Yoshitake, you are conducting research on EMS using secondary batteries. What are the difficulties and possibilities?
We cannot reduce CO2 emissions substantially as long as we burn fossil fuel to produce electricity to power equipment. This is why renewable energy is rapidly becoming popular. The ideal is on-demand use of such energy.
Meanwhile, supply and demand must be balanced. When a huge earthquake hit Hokkaido in northern Japan in 2018, the power infrastructure was not greatly damaged, but a power outage occurred across the area. This was caused by an imbalance between the supply and demand of electricity. Secondary batteries can alleviate such problems. They charge electricity when there is an excess and discharge it when there is not enough. But if the timing is wrong, it could cause great damage to society. Therefore, it is crucial to accurately grasp the remaining capacity of secondary batteries and control their charging and discharging processes. By predicting the demand and other factors, such a system charges or discharges secondary batteries on the order of several hours to a day.
For this purpose, the Innovation Center developed a solution for diagnosing the battery status. This accurately monitors the status of the battery, such as the amount of charge and full charge capacity, while managing the charging and discharging operations. Yokogawa Solution Service (YJP) is working on commercializing the system, and is proposing a distributed energy resource management system (DERMS), which optimizes the operation of various power generation resources. This includes the control of secondary batteries.
Since batteries store electricity without any material conversion, there is almost no loss in this process. However, in terms of volume and weight energy density, converting energy into materials such as hydrogen allows energy to be stored more densely. I believe the Innovation Center can contribute to this hydrogen conversion, which will become a crucial technology when energy becomes so abundant that batteries cannot store it all.
What Themes Should Yokogawa Tackle in the Hydrogen Business?
ー The use of hydrogen is expected to increase. Mr. Fujita, what are the challenges and prospects in the hydrogen business?
There will be more business opportunities in producing hydrogen. Some other countries have heavily relied on oil and gas, but are now turning their attention to hydrogen. Since Yokogawa is a global company with its overseas business accounting for 70% of total sales, we must consider the hydrogen business in such countries. Unfortunately, we don’t have much expertise in hydrogen production or operations, or in renewable energy either. However, like the battery monitoring that Mr. Yoshitake mentioned earlier, we can focus on managing and controlling the equipment. All facilities that produce renewable energy, such as solar panels and wind turbines, need to be monitored and maintained. Likewise, water electrolysis equipment, which is a key component of hydrogen production, must be closely monitored. New-type water electrolyzers are similar to fuel cells in structure and have problems in terms of durability, since they degrade by 2% every year. This degradation needs to be monitored, which provides a basis for evaluating the efficiency of the system, identifying stacks to be replaced, and determining the timing of their replacement. We should tackle this kind of monitoring first in the hydrogen business.
ー What themes will the Innovation Center pursue?
Renewable energy, production of hydrogen, and optimization of hydrogen storage. Like secondary batteries, there is a need to monitor the storage of hydrogen. We should also work on optimizing the supply chain and helping to determine when to supply hydrogen and to whom.
ー Dr. Kawano, what do you think of business related to carbon neutrality?
A promising way to reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions is methanation, which involves synthesizing methane by combining CO2 and hydrogen. In general, a large amount of CO2 and hydrogen react in the presence of chemical catalysts and this catalytic reaction requires a high-temperature environment. This means that conventional methanation consumes a certain quantity of energy. To solve this problem, the Innovation Center is focusing on methanogenic bacteria.
Possibility of Methanation Using Microbial Catalysts
ー So you use microorganisms to save energy during methanation?
That’s right. It is no use if you eliminate CO2 on the one hand, but generate it on the other. The generation of CO2 must be minimized.
ー I understand that microorganisms are better than chemical catalysts in terms of energy efficiency, but are there any disadvantages?
Different from a chemical reaction, it is not enough to just pass the gas through the system. We need to maintain an environment for the microorganisms to grow, and we also need to determine the optimal quantities of culture medium, storage tanks, reaction vessels, and so on. Another disadvantage is the processing capacity. The efficiency of methane production tends to decrease in large vessels, and so microorganic methanation is not suitable for processing large amounts of carbon dioxide.
ー Are you developing the technology on your own?
We are working together with a university on this project. Many areas related to methane production have not been clarified yet. If other companies or organizations are ahead of us, we are willing to use their technologies. We must avoid falling behind others as a result of insisting on going it alone with development. We will actively involve external organizations under the policy of open innovation.
ー I understand that open innovation will help Yokogawa embrace new technologies and methods quickly and enhance its R&D.
Open Innovation Starting from the Innovation Center
ー Ms. Okuda, could you tell us about Yokogawa’s open innovation activities?
There is no single best solution for energy use. Secondary batteries and hydrogen production are promising, but their demand varies depending on where energy is used, who uses it, and what quality is required. Regardless of how excellent Yokogawa’s technologies are, the key is whether society accepts them or not. We need to look at both the upstream and downstream of the supply chain, check market trends, and make proposals from the customer’s standpoint. Open innovation will help us in this area.
ー How does open innovation help Yokogawa’s technology reach the market?
Our goal is for the Innovation Center to provide indispensable technologies and services for our customers’ supply chains. This cannot be achieved by simply buying companies with technological capabilities and increasing Yokogawa’s sales. The Innovation Center must be determined to change society. We will therefore acquire external resources such as technology and knowledge through open innovation, organically combine them with Yokogawa’s insight, and release integrated technologies.
ー Ms. Okuda, you have worked with clients in various industries. What can you say from your perspective?
I have looked at various industries as a consultant on environmental issues and found that many companies were stuck with business models they had built a long time ago. Carbon neutrality is a drastic paradigm shift. To move towards this major goal, we need to abandon obsolete business practices and break down barriers among industries. Many researchers in Yokogawa are keen to make proposals that may transform society based on their own studies. For example, they are trying to change supply chains with Yokogawa’s technology or turn Yokogawa into a hub to connect customers. I’d like to support them by applying everything I have learned over the years.
ー Moving towards carbon neutrality is not a mission for Yokogawa alone, but for all society and the whole world. What can we do together towards this goal?
Unfortunately, Japan is lagging behind Europe in terms of leadership and Japanese people don’t seem too keen to take the initiative in this area. This is because many people don’t know what to do. They know about the visions and blueprints that have been set by the world and countries to achieve carbon neutrality and also know that this goal must be achieved by mobilizing all the technologies that are or will become available, including hydrogen, secondary batteries, and methanation. However, when it comes to their own industries, departments, and products, they suddenly lose their way. I think those involved in innovation can guide them. We can become the first to identify the needs of society, make proposals, reach out to people both within and outside the company, and show them how to tackle problems.
High Expectations in Yokogawa’s Measuring Technology for Reusing and Recycling Batteries
ー Mr. Yoshitake, you have been involved in the business at YJP. What is your view of the future?
Secondary battery technologies are constantly evolving. For example, lithium-ion batteries are widely used today in cell phones and electric vehicles (EV). Although these batteries exist in countless numbers around the world, they are going to be replaced by next-generation all-solid batteries, which will dramatically improve safety and energy density. The mileage and charging time of EVs will become comparable to those of gasoline-powered cars. Although it’s still difficult to mass-produce all-solid batteries, the production technology is being established and these new batteries will be used in practice within the next 10 years.
However, all types of batteries are expensive and not suitable for long-term storage of energy. If energy is gasified and immobilized, it can be stored for a long time and extracted relatively easily using existing infrastructure. In addition, the storage cost is lower. Therefore, the next trend in energy storage is quick gasification and timely use. As batteries continue to progress, technologies for areas that cannot be covered by batteries will also continue to evolve towards 2050.
Recycling technology will also be needed. Lithium is a key component for carrying electric charge, but the growing demand for lithium is making batteries more expensive. So, battery manufacturers are actively reusing lithium to ensure a stable supply. The same goes for rare metals such as manganese, cobalt, and nickel which are used as cathode materials. Yokogawa will have to work on recycling technology and the business of extracting rare materials from used products, which is often called the venous industry.
We also need to focus on “reuse” and “reduce” in the 3R cycle of “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” In the battery business, this process is called cascading.
That’s right. Take battery reuse as an example. It is necessary to accurately determine the remaining performance before reusing batteries. So, you need a technology to evaluate their performance and safety. In this field, YJP is about to launch a business that evaluates EV batteries for reuse. After this step comes recycling. This cascading will become the basis of the battery business in the future.
ー Will reuse change the process towards carbon neutrality?
In the case of reuse, it is very important to determine the state of a battery without destroying it.
Take batteries for EVs as an example. When these batteries approach their end of life, they can no longer be used for EVs, as these require high performance. However, they still have sufficient performance for other purposes, such as stationary use in households. To enable this conversion, you first need to know how much life remains. Then, you must classify these used batteries by remaining life and performance, because it is very difficult to manage batteries of varying life and performance when used together. Therefore, non-destructive technology is indispensable to inspect batteries before converting them and to determine their life and performance.
I’d like to add one thing about methanation. Even in exhaust gas, the concentration of CO2 is at most about 20%. We should also study how to efficiently methanize gases with low CO2 concentrations.
We are conducting research on methanation, but it is not a panacea. We must have a comprehensive vision of what society will be like around 2050 and how we should combine various types of energy. Yokogawa alone cannot create the ideal world. I hope the whole of society will get involved, and, even if it’s an exaggeration to call it “world peace,” I’d like to create a society that makes many people happy.
ー Carbon neutrality is a major factor in achieving Yokogawa’s “Three Goals” for sustainability for 2050 (net-zero emissions for the environment, well-being for society, and circular economy). I hope your efforts will make a significant contribution to achieving these goals. Thank you very much for your time today.