Building the largest chemical looping plant in the UK from lab scale: the successful development in Manchester (Vincenzo Spallina)


Dr Vincenzo Spallina, from the University of Manchester, was awarded UKCCSRC Flexible Funding in 2018 for “CLYCHING: CLean hYdrogen and CHemicals production via chemical loopING”.  This project is now being built on magnificently with a new, and much larger, grant from the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) through the Hydrogen Supply Competition 2 – phase 2

What’s the issue that your research is trying to address? 

The main topic of the project is low carbon hydrogen production, which basically means producing hydrogen from different carbon-based feedstock. They can be fossil fuels or biogenic feedstock like biogas, biomethane or glycerol, etc. The hydrogen that is produced does not have CO2 emissions associated with it because the CO2 is captured or is generally the type that could be used for other applications.

What did the UKCCSRC funding enable you to achieve?

I got UKCCSRC Flexible Funding in 2018, mainly to fund a one-year post-doc, and work in collaboration with Johnson Matthey and Advisian. During that project, we set up the demonstration. We tested different samples from Johnson Matthey in our new lab here in Manchester. We carried out a demonstration, with a PhD and two postdocs working with me at the time, and generated quite a large amount of results for different materials and different reactor operations.  Those results were the basis of the new project.

How did your UKCCSRC project help you get this new funding?

Without the UKCCSRC funding, I probably wouldn’t have been able to complete the proof of concept which was the basis of the new application. That funding helped me to validate the hypothesis I had and to show industry that what we wanted to do actually makes sense. Having people and resources to work on the project allowed me to develop a more and broader project (the RECYCLE project, see the press release) which is 50 times bigger than the one that I was granted from UKCCSRC (£100,000 versus £5 million).

Are you building on the people and the lab that you set up for the original project, or have you set up something completely different?

Now we are building on and moving towards the piloting and demonstration of the technology at higher scale. With the UKCCSRC project, we could achieve a very good Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 3 demonstration level.  With the first part of the new project, we have been able to complete and achieve a comprehensive, consolidated TRL 4. With the next step, by early 2025 when this funding finishes, we should be able to reach a proper TRL 5 demonstration for a fully integrated plant (the equivalent of 25 kW of pure hydrogen and about 5 kg/h of pure carbon dioxide).

What other outcomes do you hope to achieve with the new project?

Demonstration in intended environment and relevant conditions. However, we are building a full plant because the applications we’re targeting are different and, in some cases, this could be a higher TRL than 5. The next plant could be something which is pre-commercial or close to commercialization for small-scale application. A demonstration plant, but one that would be a full plant and include all the value chain from the feedstock to the pure product.

Where will that plant be based?

We’ll be at the University of Manchester, in the James Chadwick (Chemical Engineering) building, which has the capability to host a pilot scale facility. In the last two years, we have redeveloped this building and it’s now the centre of the sustainable industrial hub, where we have provided all the services and all the facilities needed for accommodating such a type of pilot scale process.

University of Manchester, James Chadwick building

We are also building all the control and instrumentation systems for a pilot scale system, including a state-of-the-art control system from PCS Neo Siemens, and buying important analysis instrumentation that will support the demonstration with research and development of new techniques. As well as this new grant from DESNZ, we’ve also secured another major grant focusing more on control and chemical production. This will allow us – in about two years’ time – to have the new building ready to host industrial-sponsored, public-funded and pilot scale projects for basically everything around net zero hydrogen, CO2 capture, CO2 utilization, advanced chemicals, process intensification, digital manufacturing, etc.

Why is this work getting so much interest?

Chemical looping technology is something which goes beyond CCS, and has a lot of industrial interest. So, the new project is the University of Manchester, with industries like Johnson Matthey and TotalEnergies, but we also have Helical Energy (an SME that’s building the demonstration plant), Kent Energy (looking at the economics and large-scale integration) and ERM Element Energy (looking at the exploitation, commercialization, and dissemination and communication of the project).

It’s an incredibly collaborative project – that breadth of input from industry and from academia is like gold standard, isn’t it?

It’s the topic – chemical looping – which is probably very solid and is a relatively easy technology to understand, which helps to explain to industry what we want to do. We are developing a technology which is modular. It can have multiple stakeholders because it can be used for small-scale systems where hydrogen is needed, for instance, for industrial use. But it can also have opportunities at large scale. That’s where, for example, TotalEnergies or larger end users are involved.

One of the key aspects in this project is always to show that what you want to do makes sense, supported with clear evidence from an experimental point of view and by results. It’s very important to do it in collaboration with industry. With all the research papers related to this project that we’ve published in the past year, we’ve always co-authored with Johnson Matthey or TotalEnergies, which means that those industries were actually looking at and interested in the results, as well as providing input to the research. Because we are aiming to develop technology, we want to very proactively have industry involved and not just do very good science.

I would like to mention that this research wouldn’t have been possible without the help and support of the UKCCSRC (Flexible Funding 2018) and DESNZ (Low Carbon Hydrogen Supply 2:  Stream 1 Phase 2 Competition). In addition, the results obtained and great progress have been possible thanks to the excellent work of Christopher de Leeuwe, Alexandros Argyris, Andrew Wright, Zaheer Abbas, Adam Zaidi, technical and administrative staff at the University of Manchester, and all academic and industrial partners who supported this research since 2018.

The UKCCSRC wish you all the best with this new project, Vincenzo, and can’t wait to hear more as it continues to develop!