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Multi-billion dollars of R&D funding, particularly in the U.S., China, and parts of Europe, from private companies and public bodies is being invested in so called clean energy technologies. The chemical industry is at the heart of many of these technology developments. Key sectors include photovoltaics, specialist materials for wind turbines, carbon capture technologies, carbon sequestration, and solar-fueled processes.

Carbon Capture

Capturing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and major chemical installations and then sequestering the gas underground is a key R&D focus. There are three main technologies: post-combustion scrubber systems that capture CO2 at the end of a plant’s emissions stacks; pre-combustion gasification technology that involves capturing and separating CO2; and oxy-fuel, which involves firing pure oxygen-instead of air-into a coal fired power plant. The advantage of oxy-fuel is that it removes nitrogen and generates higher concentrations of CO2 in the offgas. Carbon technologies have the potential to capture 80-90% of carbon dioxide from emissions.

Most of the technologies are at an embryonic stage and have yet to be tested at commercial scale. The costs of implementing such technologies are high, with a 500-mw power plant converted to oxy-fuel set to cost about $300 million.

At least four industrial-scale carbon capture and storage plants are in existence. Statoil has a facility in the North Sea that strips CO2 from natural gas with amine solvents and deposits the CO2 in a deep saline acquifer. The largest CO2 sequestration project is in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Canada, which handles CO2 from Great Plains Coal Gasification plant at Beulah, North Dakota..

The EU has pledged to support 12 CO2 capture demonstration projects based on a range of technologies. The U.S. has also pledged to finance pilot projects of the technology.

Government funding is far from secured, however. Department of Energy (DOE) announced at the end of January 2008 that it would not complete payment of a promised $1.3 billion toward FutureGen, a flagship project featuring a coal power plant designed to use carbon capture and storage to cut emissions to almost zero. DOE cites escalating project costs.

Despite the potential short-term issues surrounding funding and operation of pilot plants the long term potential to use the technologies to sequester carbon are huge.

The European Commission estimates that 160 million m.t. of CO2 could be captured by 2030.

Photovoltaics and solar generators

The promise of low cost solar energy has been around since before man set foot on the moon. Since 2006 the emergence of thin film photovoltaics that may be inkjet printed onto thin films has begun to revolutionize the cost of the technology. Recent improvements in the composition of the semiconductor materials away from pure silicon also promises to further enhance the performance of photovoltaics and reduce production costs to make solar energy more affordable.

Next generation technologies include the development of solar organic polymers (OPV) that can generate energy from the sun. Commercialization is anticipated in the next few years. Organic semiconductors, although less efficient today, have the advantage that they are simpler and cheaper to produce, offer a large surface area, are mechanically flexible, and are light and color tunable, technology developers say. Those factors enable their use in a broad range of applications. Predicted applications include automotive panels to charge electric cars.

U.S. companies are among the leading devleopers of OPV. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in 2007 provided funds of nearly $60 million to boost solar energy development in the U.S.

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