Ohio State Gets a Bead on Cleaner Coal-fired Power

Can coal combustion reactors strip the pricey oxygen purification step out of oxyfuel power generation?

2 min read
Iron oxide beads circulate through a new kind of oxyfuel plant.
Photo: Jo McCulty/Ohio State University

OSU master's student Samuel Bayham displays pulverized coal (bottle, left) and the iron oxide beads (bottle, right) that enable combustion without burning. Photo by Jo McCulty, courtesy of Ohio State University.

Ohio State University claims to have reached a milestone towards proving a radical new take on oxyfuel power generation that could push down the cost of zeroing out coal's large and growing carbon footprint. Project director Liang-Shih Fan, director of OSU’s Clean Coal Research Laboratory, revealed recently that their reactor had operated for 203 continuous hours last fall and captured 99 percent of the resulting CO2.

OSU's run is the longest to date for a "chemical looping" reactor consuming coal, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and in Fan's view it means the technology is ready for testing at pilot scale.

OSU's chemical looping reactor (the centerpiece for a US $7.1 million ARPA-E project that began in 2010) is so named because it circulates its components in a continuous loop in a manner that controls the interaction of pulverized coal and oxygen to prevent ignition of the coal. "We carefully control the chemical reaction so that the coal never burns—it is consumed chemically, and the carbon dioxide is entirely contained inside the reactor," says Fan.

Tiny iron oxide beads (see right bottle in photo above) roughly 1.5-2 millimeters across efficiently and precisely manage the oxygen supply to the coal particles (left bottle in photo), which are 15-20 times smaller. The beads enter the first reactor chamber oxidized and react with the coal particles, heating the iron oxide and producing CO2. The CO2 bubbles up and out and is captured, while the beads flow on into a second chamber where air flow reoxygenates the beads and carries away their heat (25 kilowatts for their 8-meter-tall lab-scale reactor). The oxidized beads then loop back to start another round.

In principle OSU's chemical looping reactor should be more efficient to operate than conventional oxyfuel reactors, which rely on power-hungry air separation units for their oxygen supply. Modeling of a full-scale plant by coal-fired utility Consol Energy, a partner on the ARPA-E project, suggests that it should at least meet DOE's goal for carbon capture technology: greater than 90 percent capture while raising the cost of coal-fired power generation by less than 35 percent.

Engineering firm Babcock & Wilson, another OSU partner, picked up $988,000 in DOE funding last year to design a larger, pilot scale test of Fan's reactor.

Meanwhile Fan and his partners are already moving towards pilot-scale testing of a simplified version of their looping reactor at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Carbon Capture Center in Wilsonville, Ala. Rather than combusting pulverized coal, it will consume a blend of carbon monoxide and hydrogen -- the gas stream produced when coal is gasified. OSU plans to have it running towards the end of 2013.

Photo: Jo McCulty/Ohio State University

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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