The start-up Energo is developing a new methanation catalyst capable of transforming CO2 into methane. The company has just successfully tested a semi-industrial demonstrator which has allowed the injection of synthetic methane into the gas distribution network. Interview with Vincent Piepiora, its founder.
In 2017, after ten years of work at Total, Vincent Piepiora decided to reconnect with his former school, Chimie ParisTech – PSL. His former teachers introduce him to a new methanation catalyst capable of transforming CO2 into methane. Thanks to his experience in the field of energy and gas, Vincent Piepiora is convinced of the potential of this technology. The following year, he created the start-up Energo with the ambition of developing the process and then marketing it. This summer, the company, which now has 8 employees, has just taken a new step by being the first company in France to inject syngas into the gas network. Meeting with Vincent Piepiora, the founder and president of Energo.
Tell us about the technology developed by your company.
Vincent Piepiora: It consists of combining classic heterogeneous catalysis, a process that has been widely used for more than 100 years to manufacture molecules or various products and which works thanks to catalysts whose function is to accelerate a chemical reaction, with a cold plasma of the DBD (Dielectric Barrier Discharge) type. The latter corresponds to a state of matter where a gas is excited by ionizing it thanks to a bombardment of electrons at very low power.
When the company was created, the technology was still at the laboratory stage and only transformed about ten liters of CO2 per hour. It took us a year and a half of prototyping to achieve sufficient control to allow us to design a first semi-industrial demonstrator prototype in 2019. The main difficulty of this change of scale was to design all the electrical, mechanical engineering , and fluid flow to fabricate a catalytic cell operating in an industrial environment.
How did you test your demonstrator?
Since 2020, we have started to build it on a farm located in Oise and which has a methanisation unit. Our demonstrator captures the CO2 present in the biogas and combines it with hydrogen produced on site using an electrolyser to produce methane. From 2021, we conducted test campaigns which ended this summer with the injection of synthetic methane into the gas network. Syngas does not benefit from any right to injection. We have obtained authorization for experimental injection of the gas produced, in association with a team from GRT gaz and GRDF. This experimentation allowed us to validate the robustness of our technology and its performance. This demonstrator transforms 2.5 m³ of CO2 per hour, for a power of 30 KW of methane.
What are the advantages of your process?
Our technology operates at atmospheric pressure and at low temperature (around 200 degrees), so it is easier to size industrial equipment, because there are fewer constraints, particularly in terms of regulations. The investment and operating cost is also lower.
Then, given that we do not need to heat, the overall efficiency of our process is still very high, with an energy consumption of less than 1% compared to that produced. In the case of methanation, we are beyond thermodynamic equilibrium, with a conversion rate of over 95%.
The process has better selectivity than conventional heterogeneous methanation since it produces almost exclusively methane, at 99.7% to be precise; this means that there are no by-products that would need to be separated. Our process is also insensitive to most pollutants, such as oxygen, humidity or VOCs (volatile organic compounds); there is therefore no need to purify the gas at the inlet.
The catalysts have a volume between 70 to 100 times smaller than those currently used in industry. This is a very important point, because more or less noble metals are often used to manufacture the catalysts. Since the reactor is very small, the cost of replacing the catalysts is between 70 and 100 times lower.
Finally, the start-up is almost immediate since as soon as the plasma is turned on, the reaction takes place within a second.
What are your future outlets for commercializing your technology?
The experiment that we have just carried out with the methanation demonstrator is solely intended to demonstrate the validity of the technology. From an economic point of view, transforming electricity into hydrogen and then into methane is not profitable. With our methanation process, our objective is to recover plastic waste or wood waste, by combining our technology with pyrogasification, which makes it possible to produce syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, from which we can then make methane.
Over the past year, our team has been strengthened and includes brilliant researchers. In addition to methane, we are working on the production of other molecules of interest. For example, at sites producing biogas, our technology can also produce biofuels, such as biomethanol, and other liquid biofuels.
We are also capable of transforming ammonia, which will be a vector for transporting hydrogen in the next 10 years. In the future, this gas will probably be produced at low cost in places in the world where the sun is very high, such as in the Sahara. To transport it easily to Europe, the hydrogen will be transformed into ammonia and then transported to our continent. Thanks to our technology, we will be able to gasify this ammonia into hydrogen at low cost.
At the beginning of next year, we will build other demonstrators to demonstrate the validity of our technology with these new molecules.