One example is this newly engineered inexpensive process to convert carbon dioxide into methanol, for fuel.
The reason in this very specific case (and probably many other cases) is economics.
Carbon dioxide is a gas. In the clean energy economy of tomorrow, carbon dioxide is available only if (a) stored or (b) when wind/solar power is not plentiful and thus fuels are burned for energy. The process requires an energy input, so you can use it only when wind/solar power is plentiful. There is a mismatch: you create CO2 when clean energy is not plentiful and need it when clean energy is plentiful, so you need gas storage.
I'll assume here that the process cannot operate on 400ppm of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere currently but requires concentrated carbon dioxide. There are processes such as photosynthesis that operate on 400ppm of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere. In fact, there is millions of years old technology called "tree" that converts carbon dioxide into solid fuels using sunlight by doing photosynthesis. I know this because I'm a forest owner and own tens of thousands of these things called "trees".
If you're going to store significant amounts of CO2, you already have gas storage capacity and thus are not restricted to liquid fuels. You can store gaseous fuels as well. In particular, you can store methane (natural gas). As lot of natural gas has been used, there is a huge number of depleted natural gas fields that have the demonstrated ability to store methane for millions of years. So, for this methanol process to compete in the marketplace, it must displace water electrolysis (invented in 1800) and Sabatier reaction (invented in 1897). Both of them are well-known technologies and when used together, convert carbon dioxide into synthetic clean methane.
If I'm an investor with focus on clean energy and considering whether to fund a methanol production process, I'm primarily looking at these things:
- Longevity. The equipment must withstand use for tens of thousands of hours at the very least.
- Energy efficiency. The equipment must show energy efficiency gains over water electrolysis + Sabatier reaction to be able to successfully compete with synthetic methane.
- Usefulness of output. Current cars do not run on methanol which is a highly corrosive fuel. Electric cars and hydrogen cars are emerging. We may not ever have a large fleet of methanol-powered cars. In contrast, cogeneration and combined cycle gas turbines have a very high energy efficiency and can already burn methane. I'd much rather invest in methane production than methanol production for this very reason. There is a huge amount of methane powered electricity generation capacity already installed, and we probably have more methane powered cars than methanol powered cars.
- Cost of output. It must successfully compete with biofuels, for example, for internal combustion engine cars that do not excel in energy efficiency and are soon replaced by plug-in hybrids at the very least or fully electric cars.
- Investment cost of equipment. The equipment must be cheaper than electrolysis cells and Sabatier reactors.
- R&D cost. Commercial companies for example have invested in electrolysis cells and already paid the R&D. Does it make sense to pay further R&D for methanol production?
- Other alternative investments. For example, if you can store gas, you may be able to store hydrogen (*) which requires no CO2 capture, if fuel cells + electrolysis cells will ever become cost-efficient. Hydrogen has better energy density by mass than methane, but poorer energy density by volume than methane. Yet, it may make sense to have a hydrogen economy for the reason that no CO2 capture and storage is required with hydrogen.
I'm sorry to say that as an investor I'll put my money into wind power, solar power, inverters, maximum power point tracking equipment, hydropower, electrolysis and forest. (In fact, I have already put my money into electrolysis by investing into an electrolysis cell manufacturing company, into hydropower, into forest, into MPPT equipment, into inverters, into solar power and into wind power.)
(*): there are challenges in storing hydrogen because it's a very light atom so it can diffuse easily, and hydrogen can embrittle steel