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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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