Imagine working in an office building where the air quality would be as refreshing and invigorating as in a clean forest. A place to work, think and collaborate with colleagues where the level of carbon dioxide, the stuff that makes meeting rooms stuffy and workers tired, would be lower than in the outside city air. Sounds good?
Well, imagine achieving this by paying less than the price for a cup of coffee per employee per day and receiving a side product of renewable, emission-free synthetic fuel at the same time. Science fiction? No, a firm reality, says Matti Rautkivi, director of business development and strategy from Wärtsilä Energy Business.
“Wärtsilä is a technology company, and we need to look ten, 15 years ahead,” Rautkivi says. “We see synthetic fuels as being the solution for the future.”
A convincing and engaging speaker, Rautkivi gave an inspirational speech at an event organised by the city of Lappeenranta in May, this year. The event was open for local students and residents and was themed “Remedies for climate change anxiety.” He assured the audience that companies like Wärtsilä are already taking concrete steps towards a better future. Climate anxiety affects especially young people, who are often frustrated with the pace in which we can tackle climate change. The best remedy for the concern is action, he says.
“If we want to change people’s everyday life and also act for better climate policy, we must find ways that are cost-effective and have an impact today,” he adds.
Also present at the event was Ari Piispanen, the founder and one of the owners of Soletair Power. Wärtsilä has invested EUR 500 000 in the company, to help it build its first production site in Lappeenranta. Soletair Power’s business idea is based on Power-to-X, a technology where hydrogen extracted from water and carbon dioxide captured from the air are used as raw materials to produce hydrocarbons or synthetic fuels.
Piispanen is a veteran entrepreneur, who has in his career founded many companies and who has many patents in his name. When he starts to talk about the goals of Soletair Power, it is easy to get lost in the possibilities. On one hand, the invention improves working environment in buildings drastically by capturing carbon dioxide. This makes people more productive at work. However, in the big picture, the company is also seeking to help solve the worlds energy crises by converting the captured carbon dioxide into synthetic renewable fuel. So, which goal is more important?
“Both equally,” laughs Piispanen. “But of course, we want to be part of the global solution for climate change. This was the perfect moment for Wärtsilä to join. If we want to be the best in the world, we must also have the best partners.”
He adds, that along with the investment, getting global marketing and subcontracting knowhow from a global technology company like Wärtsilä was vital, as Piispanen is determined to make Soletair Power a global company.
Wärtsilä has a vision for a 100% renewable energy future. In the future that Wärtsilä envisions, the majority of the energy we use will be produced by solar and wind power. Solar and wind power, however, are weather dependent, so sometimes energy generated is more than is consumed. Excess electricity can be either stored or used as a raw material for other energy sources. The seed investment to Soletair Power is in line with Wärtsilä’s goal to advance Power-to-X -solutions.
So how does Soletair Power work? Making fuel from the air might sound like a fable, but actually, there is nothing new in the technology as such. As part of the process, hydrogen is separated from water using electrolysis, which is an old technique. Carbon dioxide is recovered from the air using a unit that resembles an air purifier. A similar process has been used in space technology and in submarines.
Carbon dioxide and hydrogen are combined using the synthesis method that was developed a hundred years ago. What is revolutionary is combining these technologies and using solar power as an energy generator in the process. So not only is the end-product emission-free, the whole process is carbon neutral and represents an essential step towards a carbon neutral society.
Working towards economies of scale
The machines that are installed inside the buildings to capture carbon dioxide are not huge, says Soletair Power’s newly appointed CEO Petri Laakso. He estimates that thanks to Wärtsilä’s investment, the number of machines Soletair produces will multiply in a few years, bringing both the price and size of the unit down.
“The beauty of the system is that the machines to capture carbon dioxide can be inserted into the existing ventilation compartment inside the building. Many buildings are already linked to the gas grid, so the gas that is generated can be directly inserted into the grid.”
Wärtsilä’s Campus in Salmisaari, a daily workplace for 500 people, could produce 50 litres of emission-free fuel per day, just by using Soletair Power technology. Next time you open office windows to let in some air after a long meeting, think, how many kilometres would you be able to drive using that same amount of carbon dioxide as a material for producing fuel.