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Advanced carbonate fuel-cell technology in carbon capture and sequestration

Advancing economic and sustainable technologies to capture carbon dioxide from large emitters such as power plants is an important part of ExxonMobil’s suite of research into lower-emissions solutions to mitigate the risk of climate change.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a process by which carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere is captured, compressed and injected into underground geologic formations for permanent storage. ExxonMobil is a leader in CCS applications with extensive experience over the last three decades with all of its component technologies, including participation in several carbon dioxide injection projects. In 2015, ExxonMobil captured 6.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide for sequestration – the equivalent of eliminating the annual greenhouse gas emissions of more than 1 million passenger vehicles.

As we believe the greatest opportunity for future large-scale deployment of CCS will be in the natural gas power generation sector, ExxonMobil, with partner FuelCell Energy, Inc., is advancing new technology that can substantially improve CCS efficiency, effectiveness, and affordability for large natural gas- fired power plants. Achieving meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will require a wide range of solutions, and ExxonMobil believes that CCS has the potential to play an important role in managing emissions.

Carbonate fuel cell technology: better efficiency, more power, and less carbon dioxide

ExxonMobil’s scientists have been pursuing new technology that could reduce the costs associated with current CCS processes by increasing the amount of electricity a power plant produces while simultaneously delivering significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. At the center of ExxonMobil’s technology is a carbonate fuel cell.

Laboratory tests have demonstrated that the unique integration of carbonate fuel cells and natural gas power generation captures carbon dioxide more efficiently than current, conventional capture technology. During the conventional capture process, a chemical reacts with the carbon dioxide, extracting it from power plant exhaust. Steam is then used to release the carbon dioxide from the chemical – steam that would otherwise be used to move a turbine, thus decreasing the amount of power the turbine can generate.

Using fuel cells to capture carbon dioxide from power plants results in a more efficient separation of carbon dioxide from power plant exhaust, but with an increased output of electricity. Power plant exhaust is directed to the fuel cell, replacing air that is normally used in combination with natural gas during the fuel cell power generation process. As the fuel cell generates power, the carbon dioxide becomes more concentrated, allowing it to be more easily and affordably captured from the cell’s exhaust and stored. ExxonMobil’s research indicates that a typical 500 megawatt (MW) power plant using a carbonate fuel cell may be able to generate up to an additional 120 MW of power while current CCS technology consumes about 50 MW of power.

ExxonMobil’s research indicates that by applying this technology, more than 90 percent of a natural gas power plant’s carbon dioxide emissions could be captured. Natural gas is already the least carbon-intensive of the major energy sources.

In addition, carbonate fuel cell technology has the potential to generate significant volumes of hydrogen. Simulations suggest that the new technology can produce up to 150 million cubic feet per day of hydrogen while capturing carbon dioxide from a 500 MW power plant. To put that in perspective, a world-scale steam methane reforming hydrogen plant produces around 125 million cubic feet per day. In addition, synthesis gas, or syngas, composed of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, can be produced that can be upgraded to other useful products such as methanol, olefins, or higher molecular weight hydrocarbons for transportation fuels or lubricants.

Next steps in development

ExxonMobil has been assessing a number of carbon capture technologies for many years and believes that carbonate fuel cell technology offers great potential. The technology’s capability has been demonstrated in the laboratory, and data from those simulations is currently under analysis. Further development will involve a more detailed examination of each component of the system, and optimization of the system as a whole.

The scope of the agreement between ExxonMobil and FuelCell Energy, Inc. will initially focus on better understanding the fundamental science behind carbonate fuel cells and how to increase efficiency in separating and concentrating carbon dioxide from the exhaust of natural gas-fueled power turbines.

In October 2016, FuelCell Energy and ExxonMobil announced the selection of a location to test novel fuel cell carbon capture technology under development by the companies. The James M. Barry Electric Generating Station, a 2.7 gigawatt mixed-use coal and gas-fired power plant operated by Southern Company subsidiary Alabama Power, will host pilot plant tests of the technology, which uses carbonate fuel cells to concentrate and capture carbon dioxide streams from power plants. The tests will demonstrate carbon capture from natural gas-fired power generation under an agreement between Fuel Cell Energy and ExxonMobil announced in May, and from coal-fired power generation under a previously announced agreement between FuelCell Energy and the U.S. Dept. of Energy.  This fuel cell carbon capture solution could substantially reduce costs and lead to a more economical pathway toward large-scale carbon capture and storage globally.