A pilot project on the U. of I. campus will explore methods to capture carbon dioxide from the gas- and coal-fired Abbott power plant, with the ultimate goal of reducing CO2 emissions and developing industrial markets that would reuse the recovered CO2. The Department of Energy is funding the $1.3 million engineering and planning phase, representing the DOE’s first sponsorship of a large-scale research and development project for the capture of CO2 emissions. Along with five other Phase I DOE grant recipients, the U. of I. team will vie for future funding for a $75 million Phase II award to install the capture technology and evaluate its performance. Kevin O’Brien, director of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, part of the Prairie Research Institute at the U. of I., discussed the project and its implications with News Bureau director Steve Witmer.
Recycling is a familiar concept, with the public discourse framed in terms of both sustainability and economics. Does the capture and reuse of carbon dioxide have more urgency than, say, turning around junk mail or plastic milk jugs?
Recycling is local in nature and typically is managed at a local level. In comparison, the management of CO2 is global in nature and requires global-level approaches.
For better and for worse, coal energy has a massive impact on our lives. Worldwide, coal is still our most plentiful energy source and remains, overall, the most inexpensive option for power generation. Without it, energy costs are certain to rise, impacting prices and jobs. Illinois has a large stake in making coal more environmentally acceptable. We have one of the largest proven reserves of bituminous coal in the nation and are the fourth-largest producer of coal in the U.S. We are including electric utility experts from Brazil, China, India, Canada and Europe in our project to ensure that these innovations have global benefits.
How is this approach preferable to the carbon sequestration efforts already underway?
Carbon sequestration is an important part of the solution. Unfortunately, many people equate sequestration with treating CO2 as a waste product. We need to develop expanded markets for the use of carbon dioxide as a useful commodity. Through utilizing captured CO2, we are able to monetize the carbon management process. It transforms CO2 from a waste into a product.
Why was Illinois tapped as one of the pilot sites? What outcomes or proficiencies will you need to demonstrate in order to compete for Phase II funding?
The university’s Abbott Power Plant has been an important test bed for new environmental technologies. It was one of the first power plants within the state to use flue gas desulfurization to remove sulfur dioxide from flue gas. It is a highly efficient combined heat and power plant, with efficiencies of approximately 75 percent. The Abbott Power Plant has opened its doors to share best practices with other plants in Illinois and throughout the region. The performance of Abbott Power Plant, as a willing innovative partner at a major research university, makes it a very attractive facility for this first-of-its-kind, large-scale pilot testing,
The U. of I. is internationally known for its success in large-scale carbon sequestration – such as with the Archer Daniels Midland site in Decatur, Illinois – and its research in carbon-capture technologies. So we are well-positioned to demonstrate that our team can meet the DOE’s goals of 90-plus percent carbon capture from the flue, at a 30 percent reduced cost or better.
America has a love-hate relationship with coal – in states like Illinois, its mining creates jobs, but from an environmental perspective, it’s held in lower regard than other traditional and renewable fuels. Does this project hold the potential of closing that gap and, if so, by how much?
This is certainly a new vision for coal power, a vision that sets the stage for a more sustainable future. Technology may eventually make fossil energy obsolete. In the meantime, a broad mix of traditional and renewable fuels will be essential to meet our societal needs. Carbon capture, utilization and sequestration is a bridge technology that will help us fill the gap while more economical renewables are developed.
The latest U.S. EPA regulations threaten to shutter existing coal-based power plants and effectively eliminate the construction of new coal plants. A rapid, wholesale switch to renewables is certain to increase utility rates. This project offers an option to retrofit and keep existing plants online.
What is the vision for the eventual use of the captured carbon?
Carbon dioxide is primarily used today in oil and gas recovery, the food and beverage industry, as well as in chemical and plastics production. Other major uses for the gas are being studied. If the technology is successful, new uses will need to be found for the captured CO2. With new plentiful sources, cost of the gas now used in oil and gas recovery and the food and beverage industry will go down. Other uses are in the metal manufacturing, cement, construction, rubber and plastics industries.
The implications of climate change are going to alter the map for agriculture. Research is underway on our campus to deliver captured CO2 to crops as a more sustainable fertilizer replacement.
What is the timeline for this pilot project?
Phase I started Oct. 1 and will continue for a year. Proposals for Phase II are due in six months and, if funded, would begin in early 2017. The retrofitting of Abbott would follow, and the project would last at least four years.
What types of partners is the project looking for?
We are interested in partners who either generate or use CO2 in ways that would create a CO2 “value chain” based in the state of Illinois. If they can meet the required cost share, we welcome partners who want to be involved in redesigning energy generation in the state, creating a new market for CO2, and enhancing the student experience at the U. of I.