Turning harmful gas into valuable fuels, chemicals

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 12:13pm

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — A University of California, Riverside researcher is leading a team that won a nearly $500,000 grant to study a process that transforms harmful greenhouse gas emissions into valuable fuels and chemicals by using a unique catalyst.

"The proposed approach is very attractive," said Arun Raju, an assistant research engineer at the Bourns College of Engineering – Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT). "Because this technology will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but it has the potential to create new revenues from what is essentially a waste stream."

Raju, and his partner on the project, James J. Spivey, the J. Shivers and C. Eidt Professor of Chemical Engineering at Louisiana State University, received their $500,000 (Canadian) prize as part of the CCEMC (Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation) Grand Challenge: Innovative Carbon Uses grant competition. The announcement of the winners was made Tuesday, April 15.

The CCEMC Grand Challenge is a $35 million, three stage international grant competition aimed at identifying technologies that can convert carbon dioxide into valuable fuels or chemicals while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by one million tons or more per year.

In April 2007, the Canadian province of Alberta became the first jurisdiction in North America to pass climate change legislation requiring large emitters to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The CCEMC was created in 2009 to be a key part of Alberta's climate change strategy and movement toward a stronger and more diverse lower-carbon economy.

The CCEMC focuses on stimulating transformative change by funding projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help Alberta adapt to climate change. Funding for the CCEMC is sourced from Alberta's large industrial emitters.

In Alberta, large emitters have a mandatory legislated requirement to achieve specified reductions of greenhouse gases. If they're unable to reach their target one option is to pay a levy of $15 per tonne (a metric ton, or 1,000 kilograms) into the Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund. The fund is administered by the government of Alberta and the CCEMC receives grants from the fund to support its work.

Raju and Spivey are one of 24 winners of the stage one competition. CCEMC received 344 applications in response to the challenge announcement. In two years, they can compete for phase two, in which five groups will receive $3 million (Canadian) to further develop their projects. Two years after that, in stage three, one group will receive $10 million (Canadian) to fund commercialization of the technology.

In the process proposed by Raju and Spivey, carbon dioxide would be captured from large-scale emitters, such as coal or natural gas power plants. The carbon dioxide will then be reacted with methane (natural gas) and steam to produce synthesis gas (commonly referred to as syngas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide). The conversion process is known as "bi-reforming."

The syngas would then be converted to methanol, a marketable commodity chemical. Methanol forms the basic chemical building block of paints, solvents and plastics, is a well-known energy carrier, and has been used as a transportation fuel and in fuel cells. Demand for methanol is expected to increase in the coming years.

The novelty of the process is an innovative catalyst for the bi-reforming reaction, referred to as pyrochlores. Temperatures of about 900 degrees Celsius are typically required to produce syngas. Few materials can withstand these temperatures when coupled with the presence of steam.

Research by Spivey's team at Louisiana State University has found that pyrochlores have demonstrated the necessary thermal stability in a similar reaction, the carbon dioxide reforming of methane (dry reforming). However, they have not been tested in the "bi-reforming" of carbon dioxide and steam to produce syngas. The researchers will do that testing with this grant funding.

A preliminary analysis found that the proposed technology, if implemented in commercial scales, has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one million tons per year or more.

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