Exxon Teams up with Fuel Cell Energy to Capture Carbon from Natural Gas Power Plants

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - A few years back, there were major investments being made by the DOE and other parties to develop carbon capture and storage (CSS) solutions for coal plants. At the time, the goal of those systems was to bring down the emissions level from coal plants to a level comparable to cleaner natural gas. To do more than that would have been prohibitively expensive. Many of those efforts, notably the FutureGen, after a long and complex history has now been sidelined, primarily because of cost. But, despite the fact that renewables have made unexpected strides and some scenarios show them providing as much as 80% of electric demand at some point in the future, CCS technology should not be considered irrelevant.

First, in places like India and China, where substantial amounts of coal will still likely be burned for decades to come, CCS will be needed to mitigate the impact. But even in places like the US, where coal is rapidly disappearing, the bar has now been raised. Instead of applying CCS to bring coal plants down to the level of natural gas, it is now being considered as a way to bring natural gas-fired plant emissions down to the level of solar and wind.

Major fossil fuel companies like Exxon and Shell are making substantial investments in CCS, in the hope that ultra-clean natural gas plants will continue to operate, not just as a bridge fuel, until something cleaner comes along, but as a source of energy demand that will provide them ongoing revenues for decades to come. According to Shell’s scenario planning, natural gas will continue to provide 25% of electric power right through the end of the century. While solar and wind command most of the attention, it’s difficult to see an economy the size of ours getting by without some level of natural gas for the foreseeable future. If we are to meet our commitments under COP21 however, those plants will need to be essentially carbon-free.

That puts an announcement that came out this past week into context: Exxon-Mobil announced a joint research effort with Fuel Cell Energy, to attempt to bring a very promising, and potentially affordable means of capturing carbon dioxide from natural gas power plants, while actually producing additional power in the process.

Fuel Cell Energy has been working for some time to exploit a unique feature of their molten carbonate fuel cell which allows it to take in carbon dioxide instead of air and concentrate that CO2 while still producing power. This offers the promise of an affordable carbon capture system. While originally conceived as a solution for coal plants, they found common ground with Exxon-Mobil who has been developing a portfolio of options to sequester emissions from the natural gas plants that they hope to keep supplying in the years ahead.

Last week’s announcement marked an increased commitment on the part of the two companies to move towards the development of a pilot scale demonstration.

Said Vijay Swarup, Vice President for Research and Development at ExxonMobil Research & Engineering Company, “Our scientists saw the potential for this exciting technology for use at natural gas power plants to enhance the viability of carbon capture and sequestration while at the same time generating additional electricity. We sought the industry leaders in carbonate fuel-cell technology to test its application in pilot stages to help confirm what our researchers saw in the lab over the last two years.”

At the press conference Swarup, referred to the multi-year effort as fundamental research with the goal of fully understanding and optimizing the chemistry.

Fuel Cell Energy CEO Chip Bottone, added, “Carbon capture with carbonate fuel cells is a potential game-changer for affordably and efficiently concentrating carbon dioxide for large-scale gas and coal-fired power plants. Ultra-clean and efficient power generation is a key attribute of fuel cells and the carbon capture configuration has the added benefit of eliminating approximately 70 percent of the smog-producing nitrogen oxide generated by the combustion process of these large-scale power plants.”

It should be noted that this effort will focus on the carbon capture aspect of the problem, leaving the question of how to utilize or sequester the carbon as a separate issue.

Fuel Cell Energy also announced a tri-generation project earlier this year at a wastewater treatment plant in Orange County, California that would use biogas generated from the waste water while providing electricity, heat and renewable hydrogen.

Image courtesy of Fuel Cell Energy (cropped)