A $20 million global competition to convert flue gas CO2 into usable products aims to incentivize carbon utilization rather than storage, and could ultimately point to a new role for coal- and gas-fired power plants. Tildy Bayar investigates
The power plant of the future could produce carbon-based materials
Credit: International Energy Agency
Much has been written in these pages about the viability of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which the International Energy Agency (IEA), in its recent 20 Years of CCS: Accelerating Future Deployment report, called “the only technology solution capable of delivering significant emissions reductions from the use of fossil fuels in power generation and industrial processes”.
Much has also been reported on efforts to get CCS underway on a scale significant enough to make a difference. After a period in which many predicted its demise, recent positive news for the sector includes Norway’s announcement of a $163 million spend on building a CCS portfolio, including a project to realize full-scale CCS, and the announcement that NRG Energy and JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration Corp’s Petra Nova carbon capture system in Houston, Texas, US – which would represent the world’s largest such system – is expected to come online by the end of this year.
The Global CCS Institute (GCCSI) has identified 38 large-scale projects underway around the world, of which it expects over 20 to be online by the end of 2017. Both the Emirates Steel Industries CCS Project (the first phase of Abu Dhabi’s Al Reyadah CCUS project), representing the first large-scale application of CCS for iron- and steelmaking, and Japan’s Tomakomai CCS Demonstration Project, which features CO2 capture at a hydrogen production facility, were launched this year. And, in addition to Petra Nova, two large-scale CCS projects are set to come online in the US: the first large-scale bio-CCS project (the Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage Project) and the first CCS project at a commercial-scale coal gasification power plant (Mississippi’s Kemper County Energy Facility). Other projects are underway in Canada, Australia, Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East, and a number of pilot and demonstration projects are already online worldwide. Of the existing CCS facilities, SaskPower’s Boundary Dam project in Canada recently logged the capture of over one million tonnes of CO2 since its startup in 2014.
All this of course indicates significant progress, but despite these efforts, stakeholders agree that global development of CCS has consistently lagged behind what is needed to make a meaningful contribution to avoiding climate change. An October report from consultancy Pöyry called for a renewed focus on CCS if a future global energy mix is to include coal, while the GCCSI’s Global Status of CCS 2016 report, launched at the recent COP22 conference, says that “the current level of CCS deployment does not go anywhere near what is required from CCS to meet the Paris ‘well below’ 2°C climate target”.
According to the IEA, almost 4000 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) of CO2 would need to be captured and stored by 2040 to avoid a 2°C global temperature rise. GCCSI estimates show current carbon capture capacity for projects in operation and under construction at around 40 Mtpa, which leaves a significant gap to be filled.
Eliminating the barriers
One group believes it has identified the barriers slowing down CCS development, and in response has launched a global competition aimed at commercializing new carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies. The XPrize Foundation’s NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize competition, which will conclude in 2020, offers a $7.5 million prize to each winning demonstration project on two tracks, one to be demonstrated at utility scale with flue gas from a coal-fired power plant, and the other with flue gas from a gas-fired plant. The competition began in 2015 with 47 project teams from seven countries including carbon capture technology companies, academic institutions, non-profits, startups and even a father-and-son team.
Among the carbon utilization projects are teams hoping to produce fuels for power generation and transport, cement, polymers, proteins, chemicals and chemical precursors, and advanced materials such as nanotubes and graphene. Canada’s Carbon-Cure Technologies aims to produce concrete, while US-based Carbon Upcycling UCLA is aiming for 3D-printed concrete replacement building material. Switzerland’s Aljadix is focused on carbon-negative biofuel, and India’s Breathe on methanol. US-based Protein Power is aiming for fish food, while Canada’s Tandem Technical’s goals are health supplements, toothpaste, paint and fertilizers.
Dr Marcius Extavour, director of technical operations for the Carbon XPrize, says: “We have always known that an incredible array of products and materials we use every day are carbon-based down at the molecular level. That means that, in principle, they could be made using CO2 as a building block. What we didn’t expect was that teams would demonstrate practically every category of product that could be made.”
Dr Paul Bunje, head of energy and environment at the XPrize Foundation and leader of the Carbon XPrize competition, notes that the participating teams “are coming out of university labs, some have partnered with industry, some with industries you wouldn’t expect. There are different startups at different stages; some are brand new, some have been in stealth mode until the competition and it has prompted them to come out of stealth mode; others are better known and have been at this for a number of years.”
In the first round of the competition, the teams underwent technical and commercial viability assessments. In October, the XPrize team announced that 27 teams had gone through to the second round. These teams from Switzerland, India, China, Scotland, Canada and the US include 12 groups focusing on using CO2 from coal-fired power plants and 21 teams focusing on CO2 from natural gas-fired plants.
Extavour says the second round is where the competition gets serious. “Round 1 was about ideas and proposals,” he says, while in Round 2, “demonstrated performance is the name of the game.”
To this end, the Round 2 semi-finalists will demonstrate their technologies at pilot scale, using either real or simulated flue gas. Over a 10-month period the teams must meet the competition’s minimum requirements, including converting at least 30 per cent of the CO2 in a flue gas stream, consuming less than 4 cubic metres of fresh water per tonne of CO2 converted, requiring a land footprint of less than ca 2300 square metres and demonstrating a pathway to overall CO2 emissions reduction. Points will be awarded both for how much CO2 is converted and for the net value of the resulting products.
Following the Round 2 judging in November and December 2017, up to five teams in each track will share a $2.5 million ‘milestone prize’ and will move on to the final round of the competition. Here they will demonstrate their technologies under real-world conditions, with access to two test centres at existing power plants. Teams competing on the coal track will test their technologies at the Wyoming Integrated Test Center (ITC), a cutting-edge carbon research facility in Gillette, Wyoming in the US. Teams competing on the natural gas track will test their technologies at a gas-fired power plant in Alberta, Canada, with the location to be announced.
Carbon capture and utilization
Credit: Opus 12
Credit: Opus 12
The model for the competition “is essentially crowdsourcing,” says Bunje, with the XPrize Foundation offering resources but basically staying out of the way so that “the teams are able to do what they need to do to win.”
“Throughout the next several years we anticipate that [the teams] will engage with industry at different levels, and with partners in academia, government and finance. It is their choice how to do that, but we do try to help or facilitate to some degree. We help to build relationships with other partners – there could be other technology facilities where the teams can prototype or work on different things, engaging with partners who are interested in funding or financing. We do this for all the teams equally, building relationships where we can.”
On presentation of the demonstration projects in late 2017, Bunje explains, the projects will be evaluated by third-party firms to determine who goes through to Round 3. Ultimately, he says separate teams could win on each track, or one team could win on both.
Complementing current efforts
Bunje says the idea for the prize came about in attempting to design a complementary approach to global efforts on CCS, rather than competing with them. The technology has had two fundamental barriers to overcome, he says, which is where adding a utilization effort comes in. There is “huge value in [CCS], obviously, in terms of climate change,” he says, “and capturing and storing carbon is also a sensible approach, but it suffers from two big problems.
“The capital costs are massive when you have to develop strategies, technologies, locations to sequester, etc – so clearly a lot of global efforts have had to be funded by governments, which limits the amount of investment as not a lot of places have the capital or the interest in early-stage R&D.”
This has meant that “there wasn’t a broad diversity of innovation” in the field, and “almost nothing was happening in the carbon conversion space”. There was “some research… but there hadn’t been the incentive to do more.” CCUS, he says, incentivizes innovation and “puts the ‘U’ in CCS”.
In addition, he says CCS “suffers from a lack of market pull” because “there is not a market demand to sequester carbon. It’s something you can regulate, or incentivize by changing the price on carbon by creating markets – that’s the approach most places have taken – but we wanted to add to those efforts largely driven by governments to see if we couldn’t incentivize private markets outside regulatory infrastructures” because “markets are so efficient at scaling up technology”.
The project teams also hope to complement current efforts. Kendra Kuhl, co-founder of US-based team Opus 12, said her team would “probably partner with a company that already does flue gas cleanup, or maybe carbon capture if the flue gas needed to be processed. Tacking carbon capture onto the carbon utilization is a way to also prove out the carbon capture technology through the learnings from installing it in multiple places and using it over time.”
Opus 12’s project utilizes CO2, water and electricity in a reactor with a catalyst to produce a wide range of materials. “It’s been known for a long time that you can take CO2, H2O and electricity on a metal surface and can rearrange atoms of CO2 and water and use the energy to make carbon-based compounds,” Kuhl explains. “This is difficult to do outside a laboratory environment because the reactors in the lab aren’t suitable to scale up to commercial and industrial scale. But if you take the same reactor used to split water to make hydrogen and oxygen, which is used commonly around the world on a multiple-tonnes-per day scale, you can convert that reactor into one that can use CO2 to make other carbon-based compounds.”
|The Carbon XPrize team: Dr Marcius Extavour, left; Dr Paul Bunje,right|
Opus 12’s project is “aimed at chemicals and fuels,” Kuhl notes, “but fuels are our ultimate goal. The advantage of our technology is that we can produce a whole range of different carbon-based compounds so we can replace plastics and, ultimately, fuels for transport or heating.”
She says her team decided to enter the Carbon XPrize competition because it was “very much in line with where we wanted to go”, and that it will “bring a lot of visibility to the field of CO2 utilization”. The biggest benefit for Opus 12, she says, is that “we can connect with others in the field. We’re not the only ones working on this, but there’s not really an organization or a way for people to connect with one another.
“Another big advantage for us,” she adds, “is the third-party validation. It’s one thing to do something in a lab and publish the results on our website, but by being part of XPrize, those results will be verified. So it will be a good way to give people confidence that this is a real thing, these are real companies, and the results are actually valid.”
She says the XPrize foundation has a “fairly accelerated” timeline for the competition’s rounds, with submission for Round 2 scheduled for August 2017. For Opus 12, this entails “putting, in our lab but later with third-party validation, a significant amount of flue gas through our reactor and converting that CO2 into products. The goal of being able to do that by the deadline is driving our timeline.”
Kuhl says she is “looking forward to seeing the resources of XPrize bring more attention to the field. Having the monetary prizes is definitely helpful in motivating the teams, investors and others to take the field seriously. A lot of these technologies now are at a smaller scale, and one challenge in convincing people that these are worthwhile processes to pursue is by going to a larger scale.”
Planning for the future
According to Bunje, the changing nature of the power sector created some uncertainty for the XPrize Foundation in designing the competition. While the Foundation “can incentivize breakthrough technologies that can help transform or create markets,” he notes that “what we’re not good at, nor anybody, is predicting, shaping and harnessing markets. It’s really hard for us to design a prize without knowing what’s going to happen to coal” in the longer term.
At a minimum, he says, coal-fired power plants in Asia and elsewhere “will continue to exist over the next 20 to 50 years”, but some of the project teams are planning for either a coal- or gas-dominated future. Nine teams have entered both the coal and gas tracks and “think already that they can bolt onto whichever power plant it is,” Bunje says.
Kuhl believes that, ultimately, “we’re going to need to find a renewable way to make the fuels and chemicals that we rely on today. There’s a lot we can do with alternative energy sources, but we’re still going to need materials and energy-dense liquid fuels. [The XPrize] is really a step towards demonstrating the range of technologies that are out there to do that.”
For the power sector, she sees an expanded role for power plants, “from just producing electricity to maybe now producing electricity plus other outputs.”
In terms of climate change goals, Bunje asserts that “nothing is too late. Would I like to have seen this [competition] in the 1970s? Yes, but any small amount has an impact. One tonne of CO2 mitigated has exponential impact on the amount of climate change we may experience.”
However, he also acknowledges that more work is needed on multiple fronts. “We know carbon conversion is not the only solution; CO2 emissions are too large, climate change is too big a problem, the energy system is too robust and complex.”
To this end, the XPrize Foundation is “building an energy roadmap” to answer the question of what is needed next. Perhaps “a prize to incentivize micro-utilities in places that have zero energy access,” which the Foundation is “in the process of developing”. Or a prize to incentivize space-based solar power, transmitted wirelessly to earth. Or perhaps inductive charging for electric vehicles – Bunje points to “an interesting project” in the UK featuring electromagnets embedded in roads to charge a vehicle as it drives. “We want to see what the right sequence is and where the prize is best poised to be transformative.”
In the present, he believes the Carbon XPrize can transform both the power sector and a number of other industries. While the project teams are “making claims which not invalid but are hard to evaluate,” he says,”we’re now giving them chance to prove it.
“I believe them because I’ve seen the technology,” he adds. “If they can all demonstrate [their projects] at scale, against each other, I will be the first one saying ‘the world has changed’.”