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Fuel cell technology could provide alternative path to carbon capture

Energy and technology companies are partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a form of carbon capture technology paired with fuel cells.

"We're very excited about this technology," said Michael Kerby, corporate strategic research manager at ExxonMobil Research & Engineering, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, at a March 16 event held at the United States Energy Association's Washington, D.C., offices. "That's why we like fuel cells. While it's grabbing CO2 it's generating power."

ExxonMobil and FuelCell Energy Inc. announced in October 2016 that the pilot project would be conducted at Alabama Power Co.'s James M. Barry Electric Generating Plant, which burns coal and natural gas. Kerby said ExxonMobil would provide money for research on capturing the CO2 from the gas burn of the plant. The DOE and FuelCell are funding the side of the pilot that will capture CO2 from the plant's coal burn, with DOE investing $15 million and FuelCell putting in $6 million.

Tony Leo, vice president of applications and advanced technology development at FuelCell, said at the event that the fuel cell technology, which creates electricity from natural gas and can be added to existing power plants, has been in commercial operation since 2003.

FuelCell will be adding one of its 2.8-MW systems to the Barry plant and modifying it to extract the CO2 produced there. Leo estimated the pilot project would be able to capture about 60 tons of CO2 a day, as well as help to clean up some of the nitrogen oxides produced during the process.

He said the company's vision is to one day capture CO2 from systems with hundreds of megawatts. The technology could be eventually used for large-scale coal and natural gas plants, as well as for capturing CO2 from industrial sources.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America Inc previously used the plant to institute its own carbon capture pilot project, which provided some of the research that was later used to develop NRG Energy Inc.'s and JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration Corp.'s Petra Nova plant.

That experience meant the staff at the Barry plant was particularly well suited for helping to implement the new fuel cell pilot, Leo said.

Kerby said projects like this answer a need for cheap energy and address CO2 emissions from a climate change perspective. ExxonMobil has a working interest in about a quarter of the world's CCS capacity, he said, capturing about 7 million tons of CO2 for sequestration annually.

"We can see this being used around the world," he said. "I talk about the 7 million tons – the world's going to have to do orders of magnitude more than that."

Asked about the White House's proposed budget, Leo said it's uncertain whether DOE will continue to invest in carbon capture and storage projects.

"We have a new administration that's looking to cut, but they've also expressed a literal interest in 'clean coal' so we just have to wait and see what happens," he said. "We're used to this. Every year we go back to the well to get next year's budget appropriations."