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Información de la Tesis Doctoral

Understanding the implications of industrial decarbonisation: a multidisciplinary approach towards the transition of the basic materials industry and its impact on our energy systems

Timo Gerres

Dirigida por J.P. Chaves, T. Gómez

12 de enero de 2022


The industrial processes we have used for producing basic materials over the last centuries are unsuitable for an economy with a net-zero carbon footprint. Basic materials like steel, cement, aluminium and (petro)chemicals are the building blocks of our industrialised societies, but today their production is highly energy and emission-intensive. There is no other alternative. These industries need to decarbonise over the next decades for keeping global warming below 2°C. However, the implications of this transition for the industry, our energy systems and society are little understood.

This thesis asks how this transition can take place by exploring the technical, economic, and regulatory dimensions of decarbonising the energy-intensive basic material sector. By following a multidisciplinary approach, the thesis looks upon these different dimensions separately, identifying propositions that characterise the industrial transition and help us understand its implications for our energy systems.

The first part of the thesis studies technology options for climate-friendly basic material production in different industries and evaluates their cross-sectorial significance. Findings highlight the challenge of reducing emissions linked to the high thermal energy demand required to produce most basic materials and process emissions originating from the chemical transformation of naturally occurring resources to basic materials. Decarbonisation across all industries requires breakthrough technologies that are not available on a commercial scale.

Today´s conventional production technologies are highly standardised. They rely primarily on fossil fuels, obtaining basic materials in high quantities while keeping energy costs low. However, climate-friendly breakthrough technologies mark a shift from fossil fuels to low-emission alternatives. Therefore, the second part of this thesis studies the functioning of future electricity markets and explores the implication of decarbonising energy systems for industrial consumers. Future energy markets should be designed to ensure the emission avoidance, affordability, and adequacy of energy for industrial consumers.

Higher costs for low-emission energy sources or potentially higher energy demand to avoid emissions make climate-friendly basic material production more expensive than conventional processes. Breakthrough technologies require a regulatory framework to support the transition. The third part of this thesis demonstrates how different policies are needed to kick-start the transition, create markets for climate-friendly materials and ensure long-term climate neutrality.

Finally, the last part of this thesis reflects upon the propositions that characterise the transition´s technological, economic, and regulatory dimensions and argues that models to study the transition need to incorporate the three dimensions sufficiently. Since energy-system models and bottom-up approaches are insufficient, a new sector-specific modelling approach is necessary. The thesis introduces the conceptual model TRANSid (Transition towards Industrial Decarbonisation) to address this modelling gap. It uses a simplified case study to demonstrate how the conceptual model could be translated into a mathematical formulation.

The thesis concludes with various recommendations about the future research needs to study industrial decarbonisation across the technological, economic and policy dimensions.


Resumen divulgativo:

Los procesos industriales que se han utilizado para fabricar materia prima en los últimos siglos son incompatibles con una economía de cero emisiones netas. Las materias primas como acero, cemento, aluminio y productos químicos forman la base de nuestra sociedad industrializada, pero su producción es intensiva en energía y emisiones. Es necesaria la descarbonización de esta industria para mantener el calentamiento global por debajo de 2°C durante las próximas décadas. 
En esta tesis se pregunta cómo se puede realizar esta transición, explorando dimensiones técnicas, económicas y regulatorias de la descarbonización del sector de materias primas intensivas en el uso energía, con un enfoque multidisciplinario, identificando propuestas que caracterizan la transición y ayudan a entender su implicación para los sistemas energéticos.

Descriptores: Programación Lineal, Energía, Fabricación, Política Industrial, Tecnología Industrial, Ingeniería y Tecnología del Medio Ambiente

T. Gerres (2022), Understanding the implications of industrial decarbonisation: a multidisciplinary approach towards the transition of the basic materials industry and its impact on our energy systems. ().

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