Engineers generate energy from fossil fuels with no CO2 emissions

By Patrick C. Miller | January 09, 2018

Engineers at Ohio State University are developing an electrical generating technology that can run on fossil fuels while consuming the carbon dioxide it produces.

The process—known as chemical looping—can transform shale gas into methanol and gasoline. It can also work with coal and biomass fuels. The technology uses metal oxide particles in high-pressure reactors to burn fossil fuels and biomass without the presence of oxygen.

OSU said the technology can economically convert fossil fuels and biomass into useful products—including electricity—without emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. Under certain conditions, the process consumes all the CO2 it produces, plus additional CO2 from an outside source.

“Renewables are the future,” said Liang-Shih Fan, a distinguished university professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering, who leads the research team. “We need a bridge that allows us to create clean energy until we get there—something affordable we can use for the next 30 years or more, while wind and solar power become the prevailing technologies.”

In the first of two papers published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, the engineers report that they’ve developed a process that transforms shale gas into products such as methanol and gasoline. In the second paper, they report that they’ve found a way useful for a commercial operation to greatly extend the lifetime of the particles that enable the chemical reaction to transform coal or other fuels to electricity and useful products.

Chemical looping uses metal oxide particles in high-pressure reactors to “burn” fossil fuels and biomass without the presence of oxygen in the air. The metal oxide provides the oxygen for the reaction. The primary challenge is to keep the particles from wearing out, according to Andrew Tong, research assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio State.

“The particle itself is a vessel, and it’s carrying the oxygen back and forth in this process, and it eventually falls apart,” Tong said. “Like a truck transporting goods on a highway, eventually it’s going to undergo some wear and tear. And we’re saying we devised a particle that can make the trip 3,000 times in the lab and still maintain its integrity.”

This is the longest lifetime ever reported for the oxygen carrier, he added. The next step is to test the carrier in an integrated coal-fired chemical looping process. The current technology has operated continuously for more than eight months in laboratory tests. A similar formulation has also been tested in sub-pilot and pilot plants.

Another advancement involves the development of chemical looping for production of syngas, which provides the building blocks for a host of other useful products, including ammonia, plastics and carbon fibers.