Taking a Closer Look at Fuel-cell Carbon, Capture and Storage

For some time, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology has been one of the most promising methods for reducing the polluting carbon emissions from natural gas power plants. The way it works is pretty simple: Before carbon emissions can be released into the air, the emissions are captured and then stored (or sequestered) underground.

However, there are three big problems with CCS tech. First, traditional CCS technology doesn’t actually get rid of the pollution but, rather, it treats it as waste. Second, it’s expensive to use, meaning there’s a good chance developing nations won’t be using the tech any time soon. And, third, traditional CCS requires huge amounts of energy from the power plant it serves. Put together, these three problems have created a dark cloud over CCS technology’s potential to clean up our air.

Thanks to some recent advancements, though, the dark cloud just might be dissipating.

The New CCS Tech

A company out of Danbury, Connecticut, called FuelCell Energy, has been busy developing the new CCS technology over the past several years. They began using it full scale in the U.S. in facilities they call “SureSource” power plants just last year. In a nutshell, one main feature makes the new CCS tech so amazing, and it has to do with what happens to those captured emissions once they’re trapped. Whereas the traditional CCS process captures then buries the carbon waste, the new method captures the emissions, destroys most of the bad stuff and then converts everything into energy the plant can use to generate more power.

As you can imagine, the new CCS application is complex. But, the gist goes something like this:

1.       Things called “fuel cells” operate like a purification membrane of sorts by pulling carbon dioxide out of the air stream and into a fuel exhaust stream.

2.       Once in the fuel exhaust stream, the carbon dioxide can be easily (and affordably) captured.

3.       Once captured, the carbon dioxide is chilled, compressed and ready for industrial use or for generating more power.

Benefits of Fuel Cell CCS

As I mentioned above, there have been three problems holding traditional CCS technology back from making a big difference worldwide. The greatest thing about fuel cell CCS is that it addresses all of those problems and adds additional benefits on top.

clean air program that doubles as profit maker

To run, the traditional CCS process requires about 20 percent of a plant’s total power output. That is, implementing it costs, rather than generates, money. With that model, all bets are off for developing nations adopting the method. And recent research shows that coal is the main and growing source of power generation in developing nations. These countries are where clean air programs are needed most. Fuel cell CCS could be the answer to this problem. As mentioned, the process actually produces additional power the plant can use or sell. The method also extends the life of coal plants, creating an even greater return on capital.

Destruction of pollutants

The old method treats the captured pollution (nitrogen oxide) as waste (and everyone can agree we have quite enough of that in our world today). When the fuel cells capture the carbon dioxide, 70 percent of the nitrogen oxide is destroyed in the process.

Tested and true

 Though not yet widespread, fuel cell CCS power plants are operating all over the world today. So far, these plants have produced millions of megawatt hours of power with virtually zero emissions. Also, because they operate so efficiently, these plants have been able to produce this clean power affordably. The end result? Savings for ratepayers and cleaner air for everybody. I’d say it’s time we take a closer look.

About the author: Greg Hernandez spends the majority of his days at R.W. Lyall, putting his marketing degree to good use in the world of energy, utilities and pipeline components.  

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