New technology from the US National Laboratory to remove carbon dioxide at a record low cost

A scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researches carbon capture system technology. Image provided by Andrea Starr at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Image provided by Andrea Starr at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Scientists at one of the country’s leading research laboratories have discovered an inexpensive method to capture carbon dioxide It is also emitted from power plants and factories, including iron and steel manufacturing facilities.

Globally, industrial processes are responsible for 31 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and electricity generation accounts for 27 percent, according to Bill Gates in his book On Climate, dwarfing the 16 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions that come from Transport sector.

The new technology he discovered Pacific Northwest National Laboratory It costs $39 per metric ton and is the cheapest technology for this type of carbon capture ever reported in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. For comparison, capturing carbon dioxide from a coal-fired power plant costs $57 per metric ton using state-of-the-art technology, according to PNNL.

It would be cheaper if we could transition to 100% clean energy and not have to remove carbon dioxide at all, but that’s not realistic in today’s global economy, according to Cassie Davidsonwho runs PNNL’s carbon management business.

Even if the electric grid were powered primarily by wind and solar, Davidson said, there would still be a need for natural gas plants to keep the grid stable, or to provide backup when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.

Equally important, industrial processes such as making iron and steel, cement, fertilizer, pulp and paper, and bioenergy can all reduce CO2 emissions with this new technology. Scientists and entrepreneurs are working on greener ways to make cement and steel, Davidson told CNBC, but these are not on a large scale.

“We have the technology that enables us to capture carbon dioxide from those industrial sources. And waiting 20 years until we have next-generation steel technology that doesn’t generate carbon dioxide emissions doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Davidson told CNBC.

PNNL technology removes carbon dioxide at the source, rather than absorbing it from the air. The technology for extracting existing carbon dioxide from the air is known as direct carbon capture, and it is represented by the Swiss company Climeworks. Direct air capture may be necessary to combat climate change, since there is so much CO2 in the atmosphere already, but it is much more expensive than removing CO2 at the source, as PNNL does – direct air capture which costs Climeworks “several hundred dollars” A ton, a spokesperson told CNBC.

The emergence of the carbon removal industry

“Imagine you’re trying to separate a grape from a big bowl of spaghetti or you’re trying to separate a grape from a pool of spaghetti. You can still get a grape, but you have to do a lot more work in the pool than in the bowl,” Davidson explained.

“But from a climate change perspective, the atmosphere doesn’t care whether that grape came out of a bowl of spaghetti or out of your pool of spaghetti — it has the same effect,” Davidson said. “From a societal perspective, catching it before it gets out there, when it’s $39 a ton, versus catching it when it’s already in the atmosphere at $200 a ton, makes more sense.”

Funds to fund this research into carbon capture technology have come to $1.2 million over approximately 3 years, funded in a 50/50 split between the Department of Energy and SoCalGasnatural gas distribution facility, Robert Daggle From PNNL to CNBC.

How is carbon sequestration for $39 a ton?

He explained that the PNNL technique uses solvent chemistry David J Hildebrandta senior scientist at PNNL is leading this research.

The dirty gas exits the power plant or factory and travels to a very large room. At the same time, the liquid is sprayed from the top of the chamber. The gas rises, the liquid falls, and the two substances mix. The treated gas is left outside the upper part of the chamber and the liquid containing carbon dioxide is sucked away. This liquid is heated until carbon dioxide is released as a gas. Carbon dioxide is compressed for transportation, where most of it is stored. The remaining liquid is cooled, with the carbon dioxide removed, and returned to the first stage of the process.

This system is very large. It pumps 4 million liters of fluid per hour.

The PNNL system is cheaper than other carbon capture systems because it operates with 2 percent water, versus up to 70 percent water, which is the upper limit for previous and similar carbon capture technologies. Boiling water takes a long time and a lot of energy, so by removing water from the system, carbon capture becomes much cheaper.

“It’s like heating oil on the pan versus boiling water,” Hildebrandt said. “The oil heats up a lot more quickly. So think of it as we’ve replaced the water with something like oil.”

Even with this innovation, the carbon capture system consumes quite a bit of energy. This energy comes from the power plant where the carbon capture system is connected, Yuan Jianga chemical engineer at PNNL who works with Hildebrandt, told CNBC.

The combined carbon capture machine will use up to 30 percent of the energy generated by the power plant to remove 90 percent of the carbon dioxide. This is called the “parasitic load” of carbon capture technology. To get back to full power capacity, the power plant will have to burn more energy. However, the technology will ultimately translate to a net CO2 reduction of 87 percent on a net power generation per megawatt basis, Hildebrandt and Jiang told CNBC.

David J. Hildebrandt, chief scientist at PNNL, shown here holding a vial of methanol, made from a process built into the fixed-source carbon capture facility. Image provided by Andrea Starr at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Image provided by Andrea Starr at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Create a financial incentive

These carbon capture systems are big and expensive: putting one in a power reactor would cost $750 million. Without strict government mandates or financial incentives, power plant operators or plant owners would have little reason to spend that money.

In an effort to make the technology more economically attractive, PNNL researchers developed a smaller modular reactor that would pump one to two percent solvent from a carbon capture system into another, smaller modular reactor and use it to make a product that companies could sell.

“If we can provide an economic stimulus — if they can convert just 1 percent of the carbon dioxide that’s captured in one of these large facilities,” Hildebrandt told CNBC, then maybe the plants could “sell enough of things like methanol, or methane or some kinds of Other carbonate products to provide at least a financial incentive, so they actually want to build the capture unit in the first place.”

They started with methanol, which currently costs $1.20 per gallon. This means that producing 20 gallons of methanol will pay for a metric ton of carbon dioxide to be captured. For some sense of scale, the United States emitted 4.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2020, According to the most recent data available from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We chose methanol because it is probably the third or fourth largest chemical man-made,” Hildebrandt told CNBC. Methanol is used in hundreds of common products including plastics, paints, auto parts and building materials, according to the National Institutes of Health Methanol Institute. It can also be a power source for trucks, buses, ships, fuel cells, boilers, and cookstoves.

“If we can start to replace the methanol from fossils with methanol derived from CO2, that can at least start to be part of a carbon-negative chemistry approach to making fuels and chemicals, rather than being carbon-positive by taking only synthesized gas from fossil fuels,” Hildebrandt said.

Converting carbon dioxide into methanol does not take a lot of energy, Jiang told CNBC. But it requires hydrogen, which itself takes energy to produce. BoH could be made in processes powered by renewable energy, Jiang said.

The graph of the bear tunneling into the mountain represents the efficiencies achieved in making methanol from carbon capture.

Graphic courtesy Nathan Johnson at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

What happens to the rest of the carbon dioxide?

While a small percentage of the carbon dioxide can be siphoned off to make a product, such as methanol, the rest must be sequestered. to me Todd Schiffa PNNL scientist who works on sequestration, says the volumes of carbon dioxide that must be sequestered are “staggering”.

In general, sequestering carbon dioxide is much cheaper than capturing it in the first place. More than half of US carbon dioxide sequestration on land is estimated to be less than $10 per ton, according to a special report on carbon use and storage. from the International Energy Agency.

In his research, Chafe injected carbon dioxide 830 meters into the Earth’s interior, where the geology is specific basaltic rocks, and then returned two years later to find that the carbon dioxide had reacted with the rocks and turned into carbonates permanently stored underground.

“The carbon dioxide reacted with the rock and made a solid such that the gas was no longer there,” Shaif told CNBC. “These minerals are stable on geological time scales. Millions and millions of years.”

Todd Schiff (left) and Casey Davidson (right) are seen here analyzing the geology of basalt, a type of rock particularly suitable for carbon sequestration. Image provided by Andrea Starr at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Image provided by Andrea Starr at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

There is also an argument about the moral hazard that some climate change activists put forward against carbon capture technology: focusing on removing carbon dioxide from fossil fuel emissions, rather than reducing and eliminating them altogether, simply delays the necessary transition.

Schaeff admitted that this was a “sensitive topic”. “He comes to almost every conference I attend,” he said.

But he says it is futile not to address the carbon dioxide that is already emitted and will continue to be emitted as long as it takes to transform global infrastructures from how they currently operate to more climate-conscious operations.

“Whether you want to admit it or not, there are going to be countries that use fossil fuels,” Schiff told CNBC. While global use of coal-fired power plants is significantly lower than it was a few years ago, there are still more than 2,400 coal-fired plants, and additional coal-fired capacity is under construction at more than 189, according to the 2022 report from the Global Energy Monitor.

In the United States, where renewables such as wind, hydro and solar are essential components of the power grid, natural gas is still used, Schaif told CNBC.

“When the winds don’t blow, when the rivers don’t run, when the sun doesn’t shine, we need some kind of option that allows us to keep the lights on. And I know it’s hard for some to understand or realize that, but we have to have that option that works. With gas. Well, we can sequester the carbon dioxide. We can capture it and sequester it.”

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