Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)

Tags:

Scienc-y people do useful stuff, again.
February 21, 2013 5:50 PM   Subscribe

This might change things. It might also really annoy people who have been putting scads of money into carbon capture.
posted by qinn (38 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hmmm, it's interesting to Google this and see how heavily it's being trumpeted in the Fox News/Drudge Report sector. Here's a slightly less starry-eyed take. Still, it could eventually prove to be a big deal.
posted by yoink at 5:56 PM on February 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


…it's being trumpeted in the Fox News/Drudge Report sector…

Well with this miraculous new technology in hand we should sign on to the Kyoto Protocol right away, since we'll easily be able to far exceed such standards. Right guys? Right? …Hello?
posted by XMLicious at 6:06 PM on February 21, 2013 [18 favorites]


If we can't deal with safely storing a handful of stationary glowing rocks, what're the chances we can deal properly with staggering quantities of suffocating gas?
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:09 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hey, I know this guy! Fan is a great engineer; he does really good work (though I'm more familiar with his theory work). Good to see his stuff hitting the media.

Still, no one's going to be building new coal plants in the US while natural gas is as cheap as it is today. At least not on a commercially viable, non-experimental scale.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:10 PM on February 21, 2013


Technologies for alternative uses of coal as a fuel aren't new. IIRC, apartheid-era South Africa (which had an abundance of coal and was unable to import much oil due to sanctions) developed a system for converting coal into oil. I'm guessing it wasn't particularly efficient. East Germany (another coal-rich, hard-currency-strapped state) may have also experimented with coal-based technologies.
posted by acb at 6:14 PM on February 21, 2013


IIRC, apartheid-era South Africa (which had an abundance of coal and was unable to import much oil due to sanctions) developed a system for converting coal into oil. I'm guessing it wasn't particularly efficient.

Your thinking of the Fischer-Tropsch process. Of course it's less efficient than just burning the oil straight, if you have the oil to burn. It's a great way of getting fuel into a liquid form, though. It might be one way, for instance, of turning biomass into a liquid fuel that runs like gasoline or diesel. This would allow us to use the same fuel distribution (and automotive) infrastructure we have now, but it would make the fuel itself carbon-neutral. I've heard one suggestion that you could use solar energy to run the F-T plants with a biomass (switchgrass or some such) feedstock. This would allow for a totally renewable transportation infrastructure without making any changes to the infrastructure beyond fuel production.

Of course, F-T doesn't help with carbon emissions for coal. What Fan has developed here is a reactor technology that makes carbon capture from burning coal easier.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:28 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


How it works (pdf)
posted by flabdablet at 6:29 PM on February 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


Thanks for the detailed link, flabdablet. Qinn, the framing of your post seems unnecessarily snotty towards carbon sequestration / capture, since it says right in your linked article that "The researchers are about to take the technology to the next level: a pilot plant is under construction at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Carbon Capture Center. "
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 6:36 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why it's worthwhile (pdf)
posted by flabdablet at 6:38 PM on February 21, 2013


Wait, I'm pretty sure that coal company commercials have told me for years now that "clean coal" was something that we already existed and should be investing in, plus electing Republicans. Was that... a lie?
posted by edheil at 6:46 PM on February 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


Wait, I'm pretty sure that coal company commercials have told me for years now that "clean coal" was something that we already existed and should be investing in, plus electing Republicans. Was that... a lie?

Cleaner-than-clean coal?
posted by acb at 6:52 PM on February 21, 2013


No-really-it's-clean-this-time-honestly coal
posted by anonymisc at 7:11 PM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


The way clean technology costs are leapfrogging non-renewables atm, by time they get this to market, imho it's highly unlikely to be cheaper than wind or solar, at the very least.
posted by smoke at 7:13 PM on February 21, 2013


As a strategy for minimizing some of the most egregious harm for the atmospheric release of carbon, this is a good thing, of course, but that's only one side of the equation. The fact that coal comes from somewhere is also an issue that's obviously overlooked with all the hyperbole. Am I saying we should forsake this altogether? Not necessarily, but I do wonder if we are able to switch to this how much more time we'll go wasting because, hey, we've solved a lot of the "problem" and can delay the work towards real solutions.
posted by symbioid at 7:13 PM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


From Yoink's excellent link:

"The science is interesting, yes. But it's being sold to the public as if its positive impacts are here now.

There's no hiding the fact that the research has a very key benefit of making coal look better even as the country becomes more hostile towards the current crop of carbon-spewing plants....
... That's one of the disappointing aspects of research when it's packaged and delivered to the public: What's being discussed as feasible–and really, it's fascinating, impressive stuff–is hijacked as proof of the mythical narrative of clean coal...
... The truth is, we're years away from sequestration projects that could even hold one percent of our yearly carbon output, and that's not counting the fact that we'd still have to capture and store that carbon. And even if Fan's tech works on a full-size plant, who's going to open one when it's guaranteed to be more costly than traditional plants?

posted by smoke at 7:17 PM on February 21, 2013


acb: Cleaner-than-clean coal?

MISTER Clean-Coal!
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:28 PM on February 21, 2013


Interesting. I wish they were a little more transparent about what happens to the coal dust and CO2 leftovers.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:28 PM on February 21, 2013


Good on the researchers/project, but I ain't buying the pr version just yet.
posted by nowhere man at 7:34 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Interesting. I wish they were a little more transparent about what happens to the coal dust and CO2 leftovers.

Not to mention the chemical/energy inputs. (I suppose I could read the PDF, but I'm too dumb and lazy. Maybe some help please?)
posted by nowhere man at 7:36 PM on February 21, 2013


Interesting. I wish they were a little more transparent about what happens to the coal dust and CO2 leftovers.

I don't think they have a solution and I don't think they claim to. They have an easy way to trap and concentrate the CO2 without releasing in into the atmosphere but they need someone else to figure out what to do with it after that.
posted by VTX at 7:45 PM on February 21, 2013


And even if Fan's tech works on a full-size plant, who's going to open one when it's guaranteed to be more costly than traditional plants?

Carbon credit trading could make such a plant very profitable, if its lack of CO2 output can be sold on the market. Still, we'd need a president who isn't in the pocket of petroleum companies.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:54 PM on February 21, 2013


Now if we can just find a way to mine coal without turning vast swaths of the world into blasted and poisoned moonscapes, we might have something. Until then, I'm gonna say no thanks.
posted by Scientist at 8:21 PM on February 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


So does this reaction end up producing CO2 or not? If they've developed a way to extract energy from coal without producing CO2, that's huge. Mining coal is still environmentally problematic, but it's a far lesser catastrophe than global climate change.

But if all they're talking about is making the CO2 easier to sequester, that's not so exciting. Sequestration a gas underground and hoping it stays for centuries is iffy, at best. It isn't totally clear from the Ohio State press release, but the Vice article that yoink posted above seems to imply that CO2 is still a by-product and all they've developed is a better capture method.
posted by Loudmax at 8:23 PM on February 21, 2013


So does this reaction end up producing CO2 or not?

I think - I don't know but it's just a hunch - that R'ing T FA may hold the answer to this question...
posted by smoke at 8:27 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not to mention the chemical/energy inputs. (I suppose I could read the PDF, but I'm too dumb and lazy. Maybe some help please?)

It still makes CO2, but it does that in such a way as not to mix it with air. Extracting CO2 from the mixture of air and combustion gases that comes out of a traditional combustion process requires both more energy and more chemicals than does this technique, which only needs to separate it from water. And that's easy: think warm Pepsi.

The chemical inputs to the main combustion process are pulverized coal, air and a relatively small amount of granulated rust, and the outputs (neatly divided into separate streams) are oxygen-depleted air, a mix of CO2 and water vapor, and a mix of powdered ash and rust.

The only extra chemical in use compared to traditional combustion is rust granules, and most of that gets recirculated inside the process; a small amount ends up worn down and finely ground enough to escape with the ash.

The final CO2 compression pump consumes most of the extra energy required by this process compared to traditional combustion.
posted by flabdablet at 9:23 PM on February 21, 2013


Sequestration a gas underground and hoping it stays for centuries is iffy, at best

Compress carbon dioxide enough and it liquefies. Pump it deep enough and ground pressure will keep it liquid. And sometimes there's already some other liquid down there that we want to get up here.
posted by flabdablet at 9:41 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Out of curiosity, I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations. The US produces around six billion metric tons of CO2 per year. To compress that amount of gas into a solid would require about 328 GW·h of energy, not accounting for losses, and you'd need about 3.75 cubic kilometers to store it.
posted by dephlogisticated at 11:02 PM on February 21, 2013


Still, no one's going to be building new coal plants in the US while natural gas is as cheap as it is today. At least not on a commercially viable, non-experimental scale.

No, but the concept may be applicable to other fossil fuels, which will give us some breathing room while the renewables and the infrastructure required to run them come up to speed. It's a pretty exciting development, not because it will replace solar/wind/tide generation, but in that it will reduce ecological harm while they're being developed and improved. Coal, Oil and Gas have some serious environmental costs in their extraction - this won't change that. It will reduce smog and CO2 emissions from electricity generation, and that is a solid win.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:19 AM on February 22, 2013


the concept may be applicable to other fossil fuels

According to the slides I linked earlier, it's been tested with syngas, natural gas, biomass and assorted kinds of coal.
posted by flabdablet at 6:14 AM on February 22, 2013


How would this be a stop gap? You would have to make the design commercially viable both as a retrofit and a new plant. Then you have to do the retrofitting and building. How long will that take? 20 years? In the same window we could probably spend our efforts putting in solar, wind, or even modern nuclear power.

And there's still the matter of needing a viable sequestration technology and dealing with the other remediation of continuing to use coal.

Though, I suppose to be fair, if we stopped producing excess CO2 tomorrow, we'd still need a viable sequestration strategy to get us out of our existing CO2 hole. But why make the sequestration problem bigger by finding new and better ways to generate CO2 instead of finding new and better ways to not generate CO2?
posted by delicious-luncheon at 7:11 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've forgotten a lot of chemistry, but is there some reason we can't do some other reaction that doesn't produce CO2? Like could the coal be "burned" using iron sulfide to generate CS2 instead? At least that's already a liquid.
posted by delicious-luncheon at 7:18 AM on February 22, 2013


Hey folks, doesn't the process produce solid carbon, not CO2, and it's the solid carbon that gets squirreled away? If I'm reading it right, it seems the iron in the process grabs oxygen, so that it's not so easily available to form CO2.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:36 AM on February 22, 2013


From the "slightly less starry-eyed take" article: "When coal and the oxidized iron are combined, the carbon in the coal reacts with the oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, reduced iron, and wüstite".

The reduced iron is then introduced to the air, where it oxidizes and burns, producing the heat to power the plant.

Basically, it seems like FeO2 + hydrocarbons -> CO2 + Fe + FeO and maybe H2O? Then they do Fe + air -> FeO2 + Heat. At least, that's what I think it is. I could be completely wrong.

So you still end up with CO2. That's why I'm wondering if they could use FeS2 or sometihng so you end up with CS2 instead of CO2, but then I guess you don't get to recycle the FeO2 at the end back into the process, which means that FeS2 would effectively becomes another fuel source you'd have to find/make, and there may be some other chemistry-related reason I'm not aware of that would block the reaction I'm proposing anyway. So I guess that sort of answers my question.
posted by delicious-luncheon at 8:26 AM on February 22, 2013


My father who grew up in coal country (one of his first jobs as a teen was hopping into empty coal cars and banging loose the coal that hadn't fallen out) and has worked in the power industry most of his life repeated to me several of the points above: 1) So long as natural gas remains cheap and plentiful, this probably won't be pursued as an alternative means of energy production; unless 2) there's a carbon tax introduced which would change things; but 3) it's still quite a bit away from being introduced on a commercial scale.

Another environmental impact on this technology is the devastation to Appalachia such a commercial breakthrough would create. If coal's role stops declining, but increasing, the mountains of Appalachia will literally disappear under mountaintop removal mining. The mining also impacts the nearby ecology of the valleys, rivers and streams around those mountain mining sites - not to mention negatively impacting the health of Appalachians living nearby.

This is one of those "Wow, that's neat!" things like seeing a fully functional battle station the size of a small moon right before you realize that it can be used to blow you up.
posted by Atreides at 9:20 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


flabdablet: "a mix of CO2 and water vapor"

So, this plant, it also makes soda water? Cool!
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:59 AM on February 22, 2013


But sea urchins have already saved us!
posted by maiamaia at 1:52 PM on February 22, 2013


Hey folks, doesn't the process produce solid carbon, not CO2, and it's the solid carbon that gets squirreled away?

No.

If I'm reading it right, it seems the iron in the process grabs oxygen, so that it's not so easily available to form CO2.

You're not reading it right.

The process involves cycling (or "looping") iron between two chambers:

1: a reducing chamber, where iron oxide gives up its oxygen to the incoming coal to form iron, carbon dioxide and water vapor; this reaction is endothermic (heat-consuming) so the reducing chamber needs to be supplied with heat from

2: an oxidizing chamber, where the iron made in the reducing chamber is burnt in incoming air, forming iron oxide to send back to the reducing chamber, oxygen-depleted air, and lots of heat (think: massive industrial sparkler).

The oxidizing chamber provides much more heat than is needed to sustain the reaction in the reducing chamber, and this excess heat runs a steam turbine in the usual way.

If you look at the whole system as a black box, you have coal and air going in, and carbon dioxide, water and heat coming out, just as you would with a conventional coal furnace. The point of using iron as an intermediate oxygen carrier is to stop the incoming air from mixing with the incoming coal, so that outgoing carbon dioxide needs separating only from water vapor (which is easy) rather than from a huge volume of oxygen-depleted air (which is hard).
posted by flabdablet at 6:41 PM on February 22, 2013


1) So long as natural gas remains cheap and plentiful, this probably won't be pursued as an alternative means of energy production

The process can just as easily burn gas as coal, so it could be used to capture carbon dioxide in a gas-fired steam turbine power plant.

We do need to implement coal direct money looping as well, to create at least as much incentive to push carbon dioxide underground as we currently have to digging hydrocarbons out.
posted by flabdablet at 6:52 PM on February 22, 2013


« Older Throwing and Catching an Inverted Pendulum with Qu...  |  PiDGiN Restaurant is a lovely ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments