Carbon capture could prevent up to 90 percent of fossil power plants’ CO2 emissions, according to some estimates. But conventional carbon capture technology remains expensive and unproven. It requires massive amounts of energy to capture and store CO2, thus reducing the power plant’s output and making the electricity produced more expensive.
Using fuel cells to capture carbon dioxide from power plants, however, reduces emissions and increases power generation, the two companies say. 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 CO2 becomes more concentrated, allowing it to be more easily and affordably captured from the cell’s exhaust and stored.
FuelCell Energy develops carbonate fuel cells; CEO Chip Bottone says carbon capture with carbonate fuel cells “is a potential game-changer for affordably and efficiently concentrating carbon dioxide for large-scale gas and coal-fired power plants.”
The two companies will test this technology in pilot stages with the intention of bringing it to market, although, as Vijay Swarup, vice president for research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering tells the New York Times, any commercial development is still years away.
The companies did not disclose how much money ExxonMobil is investing in FuelCell Energy.
The companies have been testing the technology in the lab for two years and say integrating carbonate fuel cells and natural gas-fired power generation captures carbon dioxide more efficiently than existing scrubber conventional capture technology. The potential breakthrough comes from an increase in electrical output using the fuel cells, which generate power, compared to a nearly equivalent decrease in electricity using conventional technology.
The resulting net benefit has the potential to reduce costs associated with carbon capture for natural gas-fired power generation, compared to the expected costs associated with conventional separation technology.
A key component of the research will be to validate initial projected savings of up to one-third, the companies say.
The agreement between ExxonMobil and FuelCell Energy will initially focus for about one to two years on how to further increase efficiency in separating and concentrating carbon dioxide from the exhaust of natural gas-fueled power turbines. Depending on reaching several milestones, the second phase will more comprehensively test the technology for another one to two years in a small-scale pilot project prior to integration at a larger-scale pilot facility.