Emission-Free Methane Power?

Karlsruhe (Germany) Institute of Technology has an interesting press release:

Production of hydrogen from methane without carbon dioxide emissions is the objective of a project in which KIT is a major partner. At KALLA, the Karlsruhe Liquid-metal Laboratory, researchers are setting up a novel liquid-metal bubble column reactor, in which methane is decomposed into hydrogen and elemental carbon at high temperature. In this project, KIT cooperates with the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS). Today, the initiator of the project and scientific director of IASS, Nobel Prize laureate Professor Carlo Rubbia, met KIT scientists working at KALLA, the Institute for Pulsed Power and Microwave Technology (IHM), and the Institute for Applied Materials – Material Process Technology (IAM-WPT).

Energy production from fossil fuels without emissions of climate-affecting carbon dioxide – this vision might come true through the research program “Combustion of Methane without CO2 Emissions”. Since late 2012, KIT has been partner in the program that is part of the Earth, Energy, and Environment (E3) Cluster of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), Potsdam. “This is the truly pioneering experiment with the ambition of using fossils without CO2 emissions,” said the scientific director of IASS and physics Nobel Prize laureate Professor Carlo Rubbia when visiting KIT today.

Hydrogen represents a promising medium for the storage and transport of energy in the future. However, it is bound in water (H2O) or hydrocarbons, such as petroleum, natural gas or coal. Consequently, the hydrogen has to be separated first. In the course of conventional separation processes, the climate-affecting greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is formed. Today’s worldwide hydrogen production causes about 5% of the global CO2 emissions.

CO2-free hydrogen production at KIT will be achieved by thermal decomposition of methane in a high-temperature bubble column reactor. KIT researchers enter entirely new ground. “With this project, we have the opportunity to participate in the development of fundamentals for a completely new energy technology,” explains the head of KALLA, Professor Thomas Wetzel. “If feasibility can be confirmed, sustainable production and use of hydrogen from fossil sources that would have affected the climate if they were used conventionally will be possible.”

The liquid-metal bubble column reactor to be built up at KALLA in the next months is a vertical column of about half a meter in height and a few centimeters in diameter. The column is filled with liquid metal that is heated up to 1000°C. Fine methane bubbles enter the column through a porous filling at the bottom. These bubbles rise up to the surface. “At such high temperatures, the ascending methane bubbles are increasingly decomposed into hydrogen and carbon,” explains Professor Thomas Wetzel. “We will study how much hydrogen can be produced by a smart process conduct.”

The KIT liquid-metal bubble column reactor is based on previous work of Professor Carlo Rubbia and Professor Alberto Abánades from IASS. They studied thermal decomposition of methane in a gas-phase reactor. During this gas-phase reaction, however, the carbon formed deposited on the reactor walls. As a result, gas channels were plugged after a short time and no continuous process was possible. “In the reactor planned to be built in cooperation with the IASS colleagues, the shell of the bubbles assumes the role of the wall,” explains Thomas Wetzel. “Only when the bubbles burst at the surface of the liquid metal, is carbon released. The reactor wall is constantly renewed.” A similar approach was described by researchers in the team of Manuela Serban from the Argonne National Lab, USA, about ten years ago. Since then, however, this process has not been developed any further.

Following the setup of the test reactor, KIT scientists will study various parameters influencing process conduct and potential hydrogen yield this year. Work at KIT will also focus on fundamental scientific aspects, for example, on the identification of reaction paths influencing the composition of the product gas flow and on possibilities of removing carbon from the reactor. In parallel, the scientists will select materials for potential future industrial reactors, study filter technology, and develop probes for a later continuous process conduct.

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) is one of Europe’s leading energy research establishments. Research, education, and innovation at KIT foster the energy turnaround and reorganization of the energy system in Germany. KIT links excellent competences in engineering and science with know-how in economics, the humanities, and social science as well as law. The activities of the KIT Energy Center are organized in seven topics: Energy conversion, renewable energies, energy storage and distribution, efficient energy use, fusion technology, nuclear power and safety, and energy systems analysis. Clear priorities lie in the areas of energy efficiency and renewable energies, energy storage technologies and grids, electromobility, and enhanced international cooperation in research.

via: http://phys.org/news/2013-04-hydrogen-methane-co2-emissions.html#jCp


  1. I don't know. I'm currently reading "Green Illusions - The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism" by Ozzie Zehner (by the way, the book is by no means an anti-environmental or denialist tome). Chapter 5 is entitled "The Hydrogen Zombie." In it, Zehner makes a compelling case that the much-vaunted "hydrogen economy" is dead but predicts that it won't lie down. Hydrogen production is only one of the many issues facing the extensive use of hydrogen as a fuel. Hydrogen from methane is energetically and economically a far worse bet than simply burning the methane. Considering that we're already burning all the methane we can extract and, despite the industry's trumpeting of the "shale gas revolution," all evidence is that our CH4 bounty will be short lived so it's hard to see a path for this. Perhaps the idea would be to extract the hydrogen from clathrates?

    In any case, even should this program be successful, it seems to me to be very remote from a solution to either our energy or our CO2 problems.

  2. Anything that gets residual value out of fossil fuels without releasing carbon seems to me a big win. Similarly, despite all the problems, underground CO2 sequestration also seems to me worth pursuing. The idea is to not zero out the value of the fuel reserves altogether. Otherwise the fossil fuel corporations have no incentive to cooperate with the decarbonization of the economy.

  3. In order for something like this to get traction, the economics will have to be "rigged" (use of that term should not be construed to infer that I'm against this, in fact, I favor it). This would involve some sort of tax on the emission of CO2 (thank you Captain Obvious).

    Even at that, ultimately a significant of the energy available in the CH4 would be wasted. But in addition to needing to reduce and eliminate CO2 emissions, in order for the developing world to achieve something at least plausibly similar to the creature comforts and luxuries we enjoy in the developed world, we'll need all the primary energy we can get (solar, wind, geothermal, hydro utopian visions notwithstanding).

  4. Well, now we get to a different sort of calculation. Let's agree that there is still quite a lot of development needed in the developing world. I think if we fail on that score it will be just as horrible as if we fail on the climate front.

    But how energy intensive is a reasonable level of comfort anyway?

    I just read that the cost of emitting a ton of CO2 is comparable to the cost of buying a cheeseburger. This is entirely temporary. How will the marketplace adjust when it isn't true anymore?

    I don't buy the claim that prosperity and enormous energy use are closely causally related. I'm sure the fossil fuel interests don't want that questioned. But, why should it be true?

  5. I second Rob. The hydrogen economy seems indeed a zombie. Classic Homo Colossus dreams of space age tech as our savior...

    Yet, hydrogen could be a very valuable intermediate product - e.g. for producing methane from CO2: Another recent thing from Germany, Power to Gas. (Sorry, link is in German.)

    They produce H2 from electricity by electrolysis, then use CO2 from biogas (which is only 55% CH4) to produce CH4. (Or perhaps other hydrocarbons.) This can later be burned or used as vehicle fuel.

    Just found this. (Actually I wanted to look for Eprida, a U.S. biochar pioneer, who were also talking about hydrogen. Zombie hydrogen it seems. But they seem to be dead in the water.)

    Dunno about the economics of this Power to Gas thing. But: The prime problem with German renewable energy (you know, we're the world masters there...) is the large fluctuations. Our photovoltaics can meanwhile produce a huge surplus (like 10 nukes) which gets the grid to the border of stability (sometimes needs to be balanced with fossil fuelled generation at the other "end"). Quite horrific stuff actually (have seen it at E.ON last year, and I'm perhaps lucky that this job is gone...).

    So, Germany desperately needs large energy storage. E.g. pumped hydro. But that seems insufficient at large. We don't have much anyhow. Currently it happens that we give away surplus to Switzerland (or Austria), who were a bit smarter and have lots of pumped hydro. They later sell it back to Germany. So, energy conversion efficiency is not that important, and we could as well waste a little to H2 electrolysis and CH4 production.

  6. I'm skeptical of the "hydrogen economy" as it applies to cars or other distributed uses, but this technology is a little different.

    It looks like the promise of this technology is for applications that would reform natural gas into hydrogen and sequester carbon at one location. I could see this technology being used as a successor to natural gas fired power plants; use existing natural gas distribution system, strip the hydrogen out of the natural gas, shove the co2 underground, burn the hydrogen in a genset, use the waste heat to preheat your liquid metal catalyst. I wonder if the system can ramp up and down quickly enough to be paired with a natural gas fired peaking unit.

    This is a way to exploit the density and availability of fossil fuels in a CCS system that doesn't use coal.

    Will this technology pan out? I'd bet against it, but we really do need to be pursuing as many of these paths as possible.

  7. Pingback: Another Week in the Planetary Crisis, April 14, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  8. So then should we support fracking?

    In answer to your question, we can say for certain that without some carbon regulation in place, there is just no way that this will pan out. That's because it isn't possible to make extracting energy only from the hydrogen more cost effective than getting it from the carbon too, so this kind of reactor will never be able to compete with regular natural gas reactors. And that applies to all CCS: their success is completely dependent on whether carbon dioxide is regulated. That doesn't mean they will pan out if it is, but they definitely won't pan out if it isn't.

    That actually makes me optimistic about the possibilities for CCS. Currently demonstrated methods don't look too promising, but that may just be because there is no money in getting it to work, and much more research would be done if some sort of carbon controls were in place.

  9. "In answer to your question, we can say for certain that without some carbon regulation in place, there is just no way that this will pan out"


    "So then should we support fracking?"

    How is that related? Fossil carbon and carbon already in the atmosphere are very different for these purposes.

    "...possibilities for CCS. Currently demonstrated methods don’t look too promising, but that may just be because there is no money in getting it to work, and much more research would be done if some sort of carbon controls were in place."

    Research dollars are not limiting in CCS in my opinion. Much of the oil industry wants this to happen since it's a new customer for their existing capacities. (The coal people don't see any upside.)

    Rather, NiMBY resistance to demonstration sites is the immediate problem. In the long run, though, the issue is monitoring and management of CCS sites. There are perverse motivations to the operator of the CCS site, whether public or private.

  10. Renewable power: Germany’s energy gamble P2G article (im Englischen)

    Romm wrote a book in the late 90s analyzing the potential of H2 economy.
    The results surprised him.
    The Hype about Hydrogen

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