Scientists Use Methanol Conversion To Reduce The Cost Of Carbon Capture

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Pushing the cost of CO2 lower is a goal scientists are chasing to create growth incentives for the carbon capture industry. Researchers from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) bet on methanol as a way to provide cost-reduction incentives to carbon capture. 

They are offering one pathway that could turn CO2 into a product with market value. The scientists suggest they can convert carbon dioxide into methanol, which is a marketable commodity, instead of extracting fossil fuels from the ground to produce it.

Methanol currently holds uses in the industry as a fuel, solvent, an important ingredient in plastics, paint, construction materials, and car parts. 

“We’re trying to recycle the CO2, much like we try to recycle other things like glass, aluminum and plastics,” said PNNL chemist David Heldebrant, who leads the research team behind the new technology.

The researchers have built a system that is designed to fit into coal-, gas-, biomass-fired power plants, cement kilns and steel plants. It uses a capture solvent, taking the CO2 molecules before they’re emitted, and then converts them into methanol.

Relevant: MOF Technologies Brings Carbon Capture Costs Down By 80%

What the methanol utilization approach also does is reduce the cost of the CO2 capture. According to a DOE analysis, the cost for a metric ton of CO2 taken away from flue gas with commercial systems comes roughly at $46. The goal of the PNNL team is to continually be cutting down costs by making the capture process more efficient and economically competitive.

The team explores the cost of running the methanol system using different PNNL-developed capture solvents, and a lower cost has been achieved from the process to just below $39 per metric ton of CO2.

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“We looked at three CO2-binding solvents in this new study… We found that they capture over 90% of the carbon that passes through them, and they do so for roughly 75% of the cost of traditional capture technology,” said chemical engineer Yuan Jiang, who led the assessment.

The scientists’ motivation is that carbon recycling is one of the first crucial steps to help reduce carbon in the atmosphere. As Mr. Heldebrant claims, the technology could help stir the development of other carbon capture technology and establish a market for CO2-containing materials. He also says that carbon captured by direct air capture technologies could be better reconstituted into materials.

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Recycling carbon emissions and turning them into plastic-based products is one approach that carries less environmental impact compared to extracting fossil fuels to produce those plastic products. 

However, it doesn’t solve the problem of eliminating carbon emissions from the atmosphere and certainly doesn’t deal with the more urgent issue of how to reduce the emissions already built-up in the atmosphere. Therefore, scientific efforts might be better utilized if they are focused on building products that replace fossil fuels-based ones (thus eliminating carbon flow into the atmosphere in the first place) instead of recycling carbon to make products. 

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