Clean Power Photo credit: FuelCell Energy

Published on October 3rd, 2011 | by Andrew


Are Fuel Cells the Answer to Coal Power Plant CO2 Capture?

October 3rd, 2011 by  

Photo credit: FuelCell Energy

Capturing the carbon dioxide emitted from the myriad variety of industrial and commercial operations that use fossil fuels to produce power has been a “big idea” that’s really gone nowhere despite years of fossil fuel industry support, lobbying and many millions of dollars of government subsidization. Similarly, fuel cells and the “hydrogen economy” have long been touted as the energy system of the future, but that future still seems a long way off, if it will ever come about.

Fuel cells may hold the key to solving the increasingly urgent problem of how to capture CO2 emissions from coal-fired and other fossil fuel plants, at least that’s what fuel cell proponents assert and the US Dept. of Energy (DOE) intends to find out.

The DOE awarded $3 million to Connecticut-based FuelCell Energy (NASDAQ: FCEL) to evaluate the use of the company’s Direct Fuel Cells (DFC) “to efficiently and cost-effectively separate carbon dioxide (CO2) from the emissions of existing coal-fired power plants,” according to a press release today. If proven successful, carbon capture can then lead to finding the means to store, or sequester, the greenhouse gas.

The three-year research project will involve system design, cost analysis, and long-term testing of a multi-kilowatt DFC stack, with funding occurring in stages upon reaching certain progress milestones, according to the DOE. The project’s principal goals are to capture at least 90% of the CO2 from a coal-fired power plant’s emissions within the DOE’s cost targets. Achieving this could lead to a demonstration project with a DFC power plant installation at an existing coal-fired power plant, the press release explains.

“FuelCell Energy has over 80 Direct FuelCell power plants providing ultra-clean power and usable high quality heat at more than 50 locations globally,” noted Tony Leo, FuelCell Energy’s vice president, Applications Engineering and New Technology. “This award enables us to further expand the use of our existing commercial technology to develop an additional application with significant market potential, namely the ability for our power plants to economically capture carbon dioxide from the emissions of conventional fossil fuel-fired power plants.”

FuelCell Energy’s carbonate fuel cell technology separates and concentrates CO2 in a side reaction to generating electricity. According to the company, carbon capture research it has carried out has demonstrated the DFC “is a viable technology for the efficient separation of CO2 from a variety of industrial facility flue gases, such as cement plants and refineries.”

In addition to removing CO2, FuelCell Energy has also verified that its DFC technology can destroy some of the nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions in flue gas streams and reduce the cost of doing so.

Fuel cell usage is spreading and becoming more diverse. Fuel cells are being used in municipal transit company buses. Auto manufacturers continue to develop and test hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Waste-to-energy and co-generation applications are also on the rise, and fuel cells are also being tested as means of electrical power generation in the home.

The principal demand for FuelCell Energy’s hydrogen fuel cells has come from power generation companies, such as South Korea’s POSCO, that use them for electricity grid-support. They’re also used to produce electrical power independently at remote locations and those where the costs of power outages are deemed to outweigh the costs of buying, installing, and running a fuel cell system.

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About the Author

I've been reporting and writing on a wide range of topics at the nexus of economics, technology, ecology/environment and society for some five years now. Whether in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East, issues related to these broad topical areas pose tremendous opportunities, as well as challenges, and define the quality of our lives, as well as our relationship to the natural environment.

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  • Nick Cook

    “The project’s principal goals are to capture at least 90%”
    There is a way to use certain fuel cells to efficiently capture 100% of the CO2 when producing electricity from carbonaceous fuels, watch this space.
    Bob_Wallace wrote “burn that NG in an advanced combined cycle gas plant? They are very efficient”
    You’re right, nearly 60% with the latest, and I believe this is based on HHV (higher heating value) of the fuel, correct me if I’m wrong. I’ve looked at the data for one of Fuelcell Energy’s products (DFC 3000) and they quote 47% but this is relative to LHV(lower HV) which drops to about 42% if you use HHV, the difference is the latent energy in the steam of the flue gasses, although some of this could be recovered if used in CHP mode.
    Bob_Wallace wrote “If it’s from cracking water using the electricity”
    These fuel cells run directly from natural gas (methane), this is because they operate at high temperature and can ‘crack’ the gas in the cell. This is a good process for CHP applications but for pure electricity use it would probably be better to use CCGT generated electricity if/when available.
    Nick Cook – ReSus Technology Ltd, (website pending)

  • Dewaynecurry

    This article insinuates that you gain a source of stored power, “fuel cells”. However I did not see that stated directly. Is it really just a similar technology as fuel cells used in a new fashion?

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, I don’t get it either.

      CO2 is not fuel for a fuel cell. You could capture CO2 and use a lot of energy to turn it into liquid fuel (as some are working on) and then use that liquid fuel in fuel cells.

      Or you could just skip the coal-burning stuff and the very high hidden cost of burning coal and go straight to cleantech electricity.

      • AkB

        It’s not using the CO2 as feedstock for the fuel cell; the CO2 is captured as a side benefit of the fuel cell’s usually primary process of producing clean electricity, but one that could outweigh, economically, the production of clean power as it may provide a cost-effective means of removing CO2 on-site…

        • Rhodes

          The article is completely unclear. It says it could be applied to existing coal-burning plants which can only mean taking the exhaust (exactly as CCS does) which of course makes no sense as input into a fuel cell. If it is initial coal-gasification then it doesn’t use the existing coal-fired plant at all.
          If the basis of the idea is underground coal gasification (to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide which can be input into a FC) then that idea has been around for years (and seemingly got nowhere).

    • Akbweb2

      Capturing the CO2 is a side process of the primary process of recombining H and O to produce electricity…

      • Anonymous

        Where does the H come from?

        What does hydrogen plus oxygen plus carbon dioxide end up as?

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