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A Zero Emissions Natural Gas Plant?

A new way to use natural gas could cut its carbon dioxide output to zero, making it competitive with solar or wind farms.

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MIT Postdoctoral associate Thomas Adams and Chemical Engineering Professor Paul I. Barton have proposed a system which produces power from natural gas without burning it, and produces a stream of clean water, and almost pure carbon dioxide, making it easy to harness for sale to cement manufacturers now developing a use for it, or pre-separating it cheaply for Carbon Capture and Storage.

It doesn’t take new technology, but just a new way to combine solid-oxide fuel cells, and has been demonstrated to work on a lab-sized 250 KW demonstration plant – about at 1/1000th scale of a typical 250 MW plant. Because fuel cells are inherently modular, once the system has been proved at small size it can easily be scaled up, and the inventors say the system could be ready for commercialization in a few years.

If there were a price on carbon that takes into account the true price of greenhouse gas and more immediate toxic emissions of coal plants, their project could cost no more than current natural gas plants to build. Adams estimates, that at even with a price of $15 per ton of waste emissions, their idea is competitive.

Health costs alone of burning coal have recently been estimated to be close to the proposed carbon price per ton: $40. Even without actual legislation, the fear of it is already reducing the viability of coal plants.

Not one coal-burning plant has broken ground since the new administration has taken office in 2009. By contrast, 29 proposed projects were shelved. For the first time since the 1970’s, Clean Air Act fines are now being slapped on coal plants that have evaded action for decades.

As a result, developers are increasingly walking away from coal plant projects; citing financial risks to ratepayers and the uncertain future of coal with looming federal environmental regulations.

Natural gas currently accounts for 22 percent of all U.S. electricity production, and that is increasing as coal use decreases. Plants that used to burn coal are increasingly being converted to burn natural gas instead, so this innovation would likely be competing more with natural gas plants than with coal plants.

But natural gas supplies are only expected to last 60 years – and that’s if used up only at current rates – so the the cost/benefit analysis for developing the new type of power plant would have to take that relatively temporary historical period of return into account.

So, to put this in perspective, compared with solar, wind and geothermal innovations; this patent would provide a temporary fix for new plants built over the next 10 years or so, assuming that plants last 50 years, and that we plan on civilization lasting longer than the lifespan of today’s teenagers.

Image: Utah Gas Leases by SkyTruth

Source: Electricity News

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writes at CleanTechnica, CSP-Today and Renewable Energy World.  She has also been published at Wind Energy Update, Solar Plaza, Earthtechling PV-Insider , and GreenProphet, Ecoseed, NRDC OnEarth, MatterNetwork, Celsius, EnergyNow, and Scientific American. As a former serial entrepreneur in product design, Susan brings an innovator's perspective on inventing a carbon-constrained civilization: If necessity is the mother of invention, solving climate change is the mother of all necessities! As a lover of history and sci-fi, she enjoys chronicling the strange future we are creating in these interesting times.    Follow Susan on Twitter @dotcommodity.

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