MIT Proposes Solid Oxide Fuel Cells for Natural Gas Power

MIT researchers propose a system that uses solid-oxide fuel cells, which can produce power from fuel without burning it.

The system would not require any new technology, but would rather combine existing components, or ones that are already well under development, in a novel configuration (for which they have applied for a patent). The system would also have the advantage of running on natural gas, a relatively plentiful fuel source — proven global reserves of natural gas are expected to last about 60 years at current consumption rates — that is considered more environmentally friendly than coal or oil. (Present natural-gas power plants produce an average of 1,135 pounds of carbon dioxide for every megawatt-hour of electricity produced — half to one-third the emissions from coal plants, depending on the type of coal.)

The system proposed by Adams and Barton would not emit into the air any carbon dioxide or other gases believed responsible for global warming, but would instead produce a stream of mostly pure carbon dioxide. This stream could be harnessed and stored underground relatively easily, a process known as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). One additional advantage of the proposed system is that, unlike a conventional natural gas plant with CCS that would consume significant amounts of water, the fuel-cell based system actually produces clean water that could easily be treated to provide potable water as a side benefit.

the basic principles have been demonstrated in a number of smaller units including a 250-kilowatt plant, and prototype megawatt-scale plants are planned for completion around 2012. Actual utility-scale power plants would likely be on the order of 500 megawatts, Adams says. And because fuel cells, unlike conventional turbine-based generators, are inherently modular, once the system has been proved at small size it can easily be scaled up. “You don’t need one large unit,” Adams explains. “You can do hundreds or thousands of small ones, run in parallel.”

Combined-cycle natural gas plants — the most efficient type of fossil-fuel power plants in use today — could be retrofitted with a carbon-capture system to reduce the output of greenhouse gases by 90 percent. But the MIT researchers’ study found that their proposed system could eliminate virtually 100 percent of these emissions, at a comparable cost for the electricity produced, and with even a higher efficiency (in terms of the amount of electricity produced from a given amount of fuel.

The study shows that a very low level of carbon tax, on the order of $5 to $10 per ton, would make this technology cheaper than coal plants, which are currently the lowest cost option for electricity generation.

High-efficiency power production from natural gas with carbon capture

A unique electricity generation process uses natural gas and solid oxide fuel cells at high electrical efficiency (74%HHV) and zero atmospheric emissions. The process contains a steam reformer heat-integrated with the fuel cells to provide the heat necessary for reforming. The fuel cells are powered with H2 and avoid carbon deposition issues. 100% CO2 capture is achieved downstream of the fuel cells with very little energy penalty using a multi-stage flash cascade process, where high-purity water is produced as a side product. Alternative reforming techniques such as CO2 reforming, autothermal reforming, and partial oxidation are considered. The capital and energy costs of the proposed process are considered to determine the levelized cost of electricity, which is low when compared to other similar carbon capture-enabled processes.