Giving FutureGen a Second Chance

FutureGen — the carbon-neutral coal power project initiated and then killed under the Bush Administration — looks increasingly likely to be resuscitated under President Obama after proponents met with Energy Secretary Steven Chu this week. There is now good reason to take a fresh look at this proposed coal gasification power plant which integrates carbon capture and storage (CCS) from the ground up.

Those words don’t come easy for this longtime FutureGen critic. But the context has changed since FutureGen was conceived in 2003, and even since Bush Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman killed it in January of 2008. While Energywise recently noted ongoing concern over FutureGen’s cost, here are five arguments that could justify heavy federal financing:

  • Project scope: In its early years FutureGen was viewed as a PR exercise because it framed carbon-neutral coal as a research project, positioning the use of commercially-ready Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle power plants as a moon-shot. Chu has indicated that the project would be streamlined. My sources say one element likely to go will be plans to generate fuel-cell grade hydrogen.
  • Financing: The most fundamental block to commercialization of IGCC technology was Bush’s refusal to put a price on carbon emissions, which thwarted even utilities such as AEP that wanted to build cleaner coal plants. Carbon pricing may arrive under Obama–if he can push it through Congress–but the financial collapse has now slashed utilities’ appetite to pore capital into big projects.

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Black Liquor as Biofuel’s White Knight

Biofuels have really taken a beating this year in the court of public opinion, as concerns mounted over the impact of biofuel production on everything from biodiversity to food prices to water supplies. IEEE Spectrum reader Luc Rolland of Preston, England captured the sense of disillusionment in his letter to the editors this summer: “Valuing biofuel is very controversial—it impoverishes developing countries, and the true energy cost of biofuel is not worth it.”

But there are low-hanging fruit that respond to all of Rolland’s concerns. Today, at MIT’s, I take a look at the biofuel that appears to hang the lowest: dimethyl ether produced via gasification of black liquor. That’s quite a mouthful, so let’s define our terms:

  • black liquor: the blend of caustic inorganic chemicals and dissolved wood generated in pulp and paper mills
  • gasification: subjected to high heat and pressure, organic matter breaks down into a stream of principally hydrogen and carbon monoxide called syngas that can be catalytically reassembled into chemicals and fuels
  • dimethyl ether or DME: a clean-burning substitute for diesel fuel and liquid petroleum gas (LPG) that’s easily synthesized from syngas

Note that this is very similar in principle to the synthesis of methanol via coal gasification. In fact methanol is an intermediate in the synthesis of DME. Production of both methanol and DME from coal is exploding in China, and provides substantial local air quality benefits.

Gasifying black liquor to generate DME, or bio-DME for short, adds ecological and climate benefits, which is why the European Renew study released in July called it one of “the most advanced concepts for fuel production.” Net conversion efficiency on a lifecycle basis of 69%, the highest for any biofuel, means that for every hectare of agricultural production this fuel delivers the biggest energy bang. Greenhouse gas emissions, meanwhile, are on the order of 1/20th that of conventional diesel.

Bio-DME alone will not render personal transportation sustainable. Gasification of all of the black liquor generated in US mills would supply enough DME to displace just 3% of total fuel demand in the U.S., according to Jonas Rudberg, CEO of Swedish biomass gasification developer Chemrec. (For Canada, which has a higher pulp to car ratio, bio-DME could satisfy 7%).

But bio-DME’s potential looks much larger if one views it as a forerunner to broader application of gasification to solid biomass feedstocks such as switchgrass. Solid biomass tends to gum up gasification plants, as Germany’s Choren Industries may be learning as it seeks to start up the 18 million liter/year biomass-to-diesel plant it finished building in April. Mass application of black liquor gasification would invariably accelerate the diffusion of the technology.

If it does,  biomass gasification could deliver more than a fifth of Europe’s transport fuel by 2030 according to Volvo Group, which is coordinating a European bio-DME R&D consortium. Of course, how low all that fruit will hang remains to be seen.

For more on bio-DME, see the TechReview article: “Taking Pulp to the Pump”.

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This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate