Scientists propose iron as a carbon-neutral energy carrier


A consortium of researchers collaborated on a Clean Circles project to research iron as a potential carbon-neutral energy carrier to facilitate the large-scale storage and transport of carbon-free energy.

Researchers believe that iron has great potential to contribute to the energy transition. The metal and its oxides could potentially be used in a circular system as a carbon-neutral energy carrier to store renewable energy, such as wind and solar power.

How exactly this might work has been investigated in a joint project involving TU Darmstadt, Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and the Institute for Low-Carbon Industrial Processes at the Aerospace Center German (DLR) based in Cottbus.

The researchers of the Clean Circles Project explore options for storing large amounts of renewable energy, transporting it and making it available without CO2 emissions, a still unresolved challenge for the energy transition. JGU’s involvement in the cooperation project is coordinated by its Institute of Political Science. A team led by Professor Arne Niemann, Head of the International Relations Unit at the Institute of Political Science, has studied the criteria and evidence that will help identify and assess potential third country partners for Clean Circles technology.

Iron as a carbon-neutral energy carrier

The Clean Circles project is based on the idea of ​​storing electrical energy generated from renewable resources in iron, thus making it storable and transportable. As a first step, electricity from renewable energy sources would be used to convert iron oxide to iron in order to store energy there. The resulting iron dust could then be stored and transported to generate and supply power elsewhere.

To do this, the iron would be oxidized again, ideally in converted old coal-fired power plants, producing CO2– free electricity. The resulting iron oxide, i.e. rust, could then be transported to locations where electricity generated from renewable sources would be available for the next reduction cycle. “It would create a green cycle, a process in which no CO2 escapes into the atmosphere,” said Dr. Friedrich Plank of the International Relations Unit of JGU’s Institute of Political Science.

Insufficient supply of green energy

A disadvantage is that there is not enough green electricity available in Germany, which would be needed to keep the cycle running. Therefore, one idea under consideration is whether the reduction process can ideally take place in third countries where wind or solar energy is available in greater quantities.

“It could also be countries outside the EU. Ultimately, what happens will depend on specific factors and political decisions,” explained Dr Johannes Muntschick, who is also working on the project. With this in mind, the political scientists involved in the project are examining which approaches would be both acceptable to society at large and politically feasible.

At present, the methodological and empirical fundamentals necessary for this analysis are not yet in place. However, these are essential to avoid the same type of failure suffered by Desertec Industrial Initiative or to avoid time-consuming disputes, such as on the location of wind turbines.

“In the preliminary phase, it is important to provide the necessary information to ensure the support of the populations on both sides,” added Professor Arne Niemann. He further noted that not only purely economic factors should be taken into account when choosing partner countries. “The war in Ukraine and the impending gas shortage are examples that show us that political framework conditions play a key role.”

Analyze the benefits of iron as a clean energy carrier

Such an interdisciplinary collaboration of political scientists, natural scientists and engineers in the field of renewable energies is probably unique. Research carried out in the field of political science previously concerned aspects of international cooperation in energy partnerships or development aid policy projects.

However, new lands are being innovated by innovative energy projects, such as Clean Circles technology. To prepare the dialogue on this new energy vector and identify the main actors and stakeholders, the team from the University of Mainz observed what happened in the case of the use of hydrogen as a clean fuel and discourse surrounding this issue at EU level.

“The goal here is to extrapolate the green hydrogen discourse in Europe to the technology of Clean Circles,” Dr. Friedrich Plank concluded. Initial results were presented to cooperating partners at a Clean Circles retreat held in June 2022.

Clean Circles Project

The Clean Circles project was launched in the summer of 2021. The work of the political science partners in Mainz is funded by initial seed funding from the Strategic Fund of the Rhineland-Palatinate Research Initiative. The lively exchange and close cooperation in this project between JGU and TU Darmstadt, here in particular with Professor Michèle Knodt from the research group Comparative Politics and European Integration, illustrates how the members of the Rhine-Main University Alliance work together on future-oriented interdisciplinary projects. businesses.


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