Christian Welach from co2ol Catalyst talks about the planned spin-off from the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien). Christian and colleagues have developed a catalyst technology that can convert CO2 into methanol.
Christian, what exactly does Co2ol Catalyst do?
With our catalysts, we can convert the CO2 that we all want to get rid of into the valuable substance methanol using green hydrogen. Methanol is one of the most important basic building blocks of the chemical industry.
What does this mean in concrete terms and what does it bring for the climate – in numbers?
We are working on new, particularly efficient ways to convert CO2 to methanol. Stoichiometrically, 1.35 tons of CO2 is saved per ton of methanol produced.
How far have you come so far?
On a laboratory scale, together with industrial partners, large companies in Austria, we have already shown that our catalyst works very well for their emissions. We are now upscaling and will build a prototype by 2025, which we can then take from the lab to the customers to demonstrate the technology.
Which companies have you brought on board?
So far, we have been able to win over OMV, RHI Magnesita, and Voestalpine. We are also very pleased with the feedback and support we have received from these partners and look forward to further collaboration. But of course, we are also open to further cooperation.
What are the specific applications of your technology?
Our catalyst can be used anywhere where a lot of CO2 is emitted – so in traditional heavy industries like steel, cement, or power generation.
Especially the cement industry has the problem that even with a complete switch to renewable energy, intrinsic CO2 is still produced during lime burning. This CO2 comes from the minerals and cannot be avoided.
Why specifically methanol? What makes methanol so special?
Methanol is like a Lego brick of the chemical industry – an important basic chemical whose importance continues to increase. Currently, the global production is about 100 million tons, with a strong upward trend. Almost all of it comes from fossil sources, but it could just as well be produced from CO2. Methanol is also very easy to store, transport, and store. It can thus be produced decentrally, for example in a biogas plant.
Are applications in the direction of E-Fuels, alternative fuels, or aviation fuels also planned?
Methanol can also be used for E-Fuels, yes. Especially in the shipping sector, many companies are switching from heavy oil to methanol because it offers advantages over hydrogen and batteries. However, we plan to offer our methanol primarily as a raw material for the chemical industry.
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To make what out of it?
The most important derivatives from methanol are formaldehyde for the production of resins and glues, e.g., in the furniture industry, and olefins as raw material for the production of plastics.
So, long-lasting, recyclable products where the CO2 doesn’t end up in the atmosphere at the end?
Catalysts for CO2 reduction already exist. What makes your catalyst so special?
First of all, our catalyst is active under milder conditions (lower pressure and temperature) than the currently used copper catalysts, which saves a lot of energy in operation. Our catalyst has a significantly higher methanol yield under these conditions. This ensures that the valuable hydrogen, necessary for producing methanol from CO2, actually ends up in the valuable product methanol and not in various by-products. This makes the whole process much more economically efficient and interesting. At the same time, the climate is protected by the lower energy requirements.
Then there’s the issue with sulfur: All typical exhaust gases contain sulfur impurities, but the currently used catalysts require practically sulfur-free CO2. This causes a very high purification effort. In contrast, our catalyst is very resistant to sulfur impurities. This significantly reduces the purification effort and makes the whole process simpler, more efficient, and cheaper. This is particularly important for biogenic CO2 sources like biogas plants.
Especially since biogenic sources emit climate-neutral CO2?
Yes. Methanol, which is currently produced from natural gas or even coal and imported from Asian countries to Europe, could be replaced by methanol from biogenic CO2. This achieves a significant footprint reduction, and we move away from fossil resources.
What was the personal motivation behind going into this development process and this spin-off?
It all started four to five years ago at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) as a research project, where they have been involved in catalysis for a long time and then also went into the CCU (Carbon Capture and Utilization) research direction. At some point, there was a publication on the TU homepage, then in the media, and pretty soon after that companies called us and said, “Hey, what you’re doing is a great thing. Can we learn more about it, can we maybe even work together?” That’s when we decided to really bring our research out of the lab into practice.
And what are the challenges you are currently facing? What are your next big steps that you now need to take?
We have applied for two patents, one of which is now being approved in Austria. The next real milestone in front of us is the construction of the prototype. Currently, the industrial company’s exhaust gases come to us in bottles, and we now want to turn that around and go to the industry. So, this upscaling, the process development around the catalyst, these are now the works we are really technologically working on. And of course, we want to transform the whole thing into a successful spin-off company.
If we now look visionary and hopeful into the future, where do you hope to be by 2030?
By 2030, we want to have our first license, our first plant up and running, to be able to show with a first user that our technology works, contributes to CO2 reduction, and produces good methanol. Depending on how large this plant is, we will then save significantly more than 200,000 tons of CO2 per year.
Are you also looking for investors?
We are not yet a founded company and are currently financing ourselves mainly through public funding and the support of our partners. In the medium term, however, we plan to involve strategic partners and investors, for example, to build a demonstration plant.
How can the Climate Lab Community support you?
The Climate Lab Community has already helped us a lot just through contacts and exchanges with other people in similar situations. We have received many valuable tips for our journey. Sometimes this has also resulted in contacts with companies for whom our catalyst or our technology might be interesting.