Q&A: WVU engineer secures federal funding for 4 carbon capture projects

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Debangsu Bhattacharyya is a GE Plastics Material Engineering Professor at West Virginia University. He is currently working on four projects funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. The projects revolve around carbon capture, which seeks to provide solutions to minimize the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

In this 12 News Q&A, Bhattacharyya discusses his projects.

Q: What got you interested in carbon capture? 

A: Actually, we started on [carbon capture projects] probably about 10 years back when I started working at WVU, and there are two things that we really wanted to do there. First thing is that we tried to really work with the carbon capture technology developers so that the commercialization of the new technologies can be done very fast. So, typically, [with] any other chemical technologies, it takes you 20-30 years before a lab scale technology actually sees commercialization.

That is so important because if you really think about it, last year in 2020 with covid, we had about a seven percent drop in CO2 production all over the world, but if you look into it, in 2019, there were about 36 billion tons of CO2 that was released and the PPM, which is parts per million, of CO2 in the atmosphere, it actually keeps rising. If you look into 2018, there was about a 2.5 PPM increase. So right now, our CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is about 410 parts per million, so this is increasing actually at an alarming rate.

And the problem is that, even though we know that this is a problem and that CO2 concentration is rising in the atmosphere, the solution cannot [happen] overnight. That’s the biggest problem. It’s not like a million other things that we can replace overnight because a lot of CO2 is being released from things like power production. So if we actually tried to cut it down, where would we get the power?

So there are two things, one is the new technologies that need to be delivered that can reduce the overall carbon footprint, and the second thing is that you still have to expand the infrastructure. So if you really think about replacing a lot of non-renewable energy [in] the grid, the problem is, it requires a massive amount of infrastructure and capital expenditure, so obviously that solution is not going to come overnight. 

That solution may not be feasible for all regions. For example, if you think here today, in West Virginia, you do not see the sun, like you probably didn’t see it for the last three days or whatever. During the winter, we neither have wind energy like Texas. We nor have the solar energy like California. So, the solution is expected to vary from country to country, region to region, so CO2 capture is one solution in the mix because we still have all our power plants…For example, if you think about our region—West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio—we have so many power plants. They are generating CO2, so if they can continue to generate the power and we capture the CO2 at such a level that when the fumes are released into the atmosphere, it’s not polluting at it is doing right now. 

It’s not like a million other things that we can replace overnight because a lot of CO2 is being released from things like power production. So if we actually tried to cut it down, where would we get the power?

Debangsu Bhattacharyya

So that’s really the thought—where we started, and we have been working for almost 10 years with many technology developers and working as part of the US Department of Energy. Our project has always been funded by them and we have been working with the researchers at the US Department of Energy along with many international test centers. We are part of something called the International Test Center Network, so they are all over the European Union and US and Australia and many other countries, there is a test center, like for example, you develop a new technology, you take the technology to that center, and you test it out and generate the data, [and] use it for improving your process more and more. So, we work with them, actually. 

Q: So, two of your projects have to do with stopping the CO2 from getting out to begin with, from natural gas and coal power plant sources, and then there’s one that’s about taking CO2 from the air that is already there. Is that right?

A: Exactly. The first one is what you call the “post-combustion capture,” so meaning that you combust coal or natural gas—or it could be anything, even part of our car when we are burning gasoline, we are generating CO2…so anywhere where the fuel is combusted. And it’s a hydrocarbon, so when it reacts with [the] oxygen [in the air], it produces CO2…So it combusts, and then from the combustion gas, you capture CO2. That would retrofit many of the existing processes. 

There is another technology which is known as the “pre-combustion capture.” So basically, before the hydrocarbon combusts, you convert it and then you capture CO2 from there. So there are some technologies that are working on that, [and] we have some papers on that area. Basically, the gasification technology is one of them, so you gasify and you produce hydrogen from there, so if you start with coal or natural gas or something like that, any hydrocarbon fuel, you can gasify and produce hydrogen from there and then you combust hydrogen so that when you combust, what you produce is water, and the CO2 is captured.

There is a third one that is called an “oxy-combustion,” so oxy-combustion is basically, instead of air, you combust with oxygen, and when you combust with oxygen it still produces CO2, but if you think about hydrocarbon, like you have carbon and hydrogen, it reacts with oxygen to produce CO2 and water. Water can be condensed, and then you get pure CO2, so that’s the third type of technology. 

And this new one that you just talked about, the direct air capture, this is actually a new topic, it still has to get the ground, firm footing. In the European union, they have already started either 3 or 4 power plant projects and there is a company that is working extensively in developing these. So that is a really new thing I would say. 

Basically the thing is that you will not be able to capture everything at the source. It’s so distributed like, for example, how do you capture it from the car? So if you continue to drive the car, the CO2 will emit to the atmosphere, so in a big city, there are so many cars driving. Electric cars, yes, that’s also a solution, but that may not be the solution in all the places and not probably in the foreseeable future. There are other sources, like for example, what about the aircraft or the planes? They would still be generating CO2…so you get CO2 from such distributed sources that you cannot capture locally. It will come to the atmosphere. That’s actually a very big contribution to this pollution also. So when it goes to the atmosphere, you have to still capture it from the atmosphere, so new technologies [like] direct air capture is something coming very aggressively actually, all over the world. 

Q: It seems very fascinating to me because it seems very difficult to figure out how you can have carbon capture and also make it profitable and commercialize it as well. Is that what you’re working on, is trying to drive down some of the costs?

A: Yes, and there are two things here. So one is that previously, the thought was that carbon capture is an option. That was the thought, like I may capture and I may not, but going forward in the future, if a plant is emitting a large amount of CO2, it will be shut down. That’s actually written on the wall, you can see how many coal powered power plant have been shut down in the country, and everyday you look into the news, a plant is getting shut down. Pretty much everyday actually, and I personally work with some of them and I know that we work with some plants in New Mexico. It’s a couple of hours from Albuquerque in New Mexico. They shut down. 

Actually in New Mexico, there are no coal fired power plants. California is not taking any non-green power inputed from the outside. Like Wyoming used to sell power to California. They cannot sell it now because in Wyoming, most of the power is from the coal fired powered power plants. California will not buy that, so they’re basically saying, tell me the source of your power. Is it from a green source? Then I will purchase it. So what that means is eventually, if some sort of carbon mitigation technique is not implemented, it is expected that some high carbon emitting plants will be running out of business. 

Energy from coal results in more CO2 emissions than energy from natural gas

There are multiple things that we are looking into…What solutions are feasible for a certain region of the state? The immediate solution that people are running after is shutting down the coal fired power plants and the slag is being taken out by the natural gas combined fired power plants. So the moment you move from coal to natural gas, your CO2 emissions actually drops actually significantly. So that is the immediate solution, however that is not enough because natural gas combined power plant, they are going to produce a lot of CO2, so eventually, they would not be sustainable from an environmental perspective. 

So what is the solution? Because ultimately, if everyone is doing the capture, whatever the cost is will be transferred over to the customers, just like all of the environmental processing costs or treatment costs…If you think about water treatment, they bring in a new fancy water treatment process and the cost gets passed on to the customer. That’s the same thing that is going to happen. 

The cost of non-renewable resources has increased or remained the same in the past 10 years.

However, that means that if the cost gets passed on to the customer, in some sense, the cost of energy goes up…It’s not only passing on to the customers. Energy is a very big driver, as you know, for the economy. As the energy cost goes up, the economy will have a big dent. So the question is, how can we still take care of the large amount of CO2 emissions but at a reduced cost. So all of these technologies are trying to reduce two costs. 

One is the capital cost, which basically means how much dollar do I have to put on the ground to have the plant or industry there, and then the next cost is the operating cost. Every month or every day, or every moment, how much dollar I need to spend so that keeps activating over years and years and years, and it’s a reoccurring cost. So we are basically trying to reduce both capital cost and the operating cost and the footprint. So that is basically saying, can I have a compact plant, like a smaller plant to lower capital cost and lower the overall cost, and they should be fast. So if I want to change, I can switch from whatever we’re capturing. 

So this morning, I actually had a call with the European Union consortium actually. We’re working on a proposal with them and the idea is actually flexible capture, and it’s lead by the UK, and the idea is that during the day time, most of the energy would be coming from renewables, but during evening though the night, it has to go back to the conventional power plant, but during that time, the conventional power plant has to do CO2 capture, and that CO2 capture has to be very high, like 99.99% or so. So what needs to be done to make our technologies ready to immediately go to that high level of CO2 capture? So all over the world, there is a consensus that some level of CO2 or carbon mitigation needs to be done.

Q: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

A: I think that West Virginia University and working with the technology, we can play a big role. I would say that we look forward to playing a critical role in not only the country, but I think this is a problem that we need to tackle for the entire world. For the sustainability of the world and the distance of the future generation, this is a problem which we really need to work on and  what we are bringing to the table is that as a state university, we are playing our role, not only on a technology perspective, but also from the perspective of different policies in the sense that what you will see from many of our papers, what we try to evaluate is that, say if I had to imposed a carbon tax, what it would be…In other words we’re trying to see, what are the different avenues to make CO2 capture practical? 

At the same time, we’re looking into many futuristic thing in terms of direct air capture again, but another thing is called a BECCS, that stands for BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, so that is a negative emission technology and what it means is that not only is it not generating CO2 but it is also taking the CO2 [air concentration level] down. So we have also been working as part of that, so eventually, if there are many successful commercial facilities like that, we hope that in the future, eventually we will be able to handle [the carbon dioxide concentration].

Because the point I was trying to make is that first of all, this is increasing around 2 or 3 ppm per year so first of all, if you wanted to be where we are, we have to capture what is corresponding to that 3 ppm, [and] that’s actually several billion tons of CO2, so first we have to reach that target. Once we meet that target, we have to go to the next target, which is going down. That means that whatever we have in the atmosphere already, you have to keep cleaning the atmosphere so that we can go to a much more comfortable [ppm] level. So we’re working towards an environment where [the ppm is] not only [at] a steady state at the current situation, but as we go forward in the future, in several years we will be able to go back to [the ppm level] about 30 to 40 years back.

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