Development of a revolutionary technology to capture greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to generate electricity has attained a major milestone.
After 10 years of initial research by Alberta Innovates and successful lab-scale testing, oil sands operator Canadian Natural Resources, with funding from Emissions Reduction Alberta and in partnership with Cenovus, Suncor, and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), is set to mount a pilot-scale test of molten carbonate fuel cell technology at its Scotford refinery near Edmonton.
The technology has shown great promise, but to fully examine the potential for GHG capture and electricity generation a larger test is needed. The $35 million pilot, with capacity to capture up to 22 tonnes per day of carbon dioxide (CO2) and produce 600 kilowatts of electricity, is expected to start up in 2022.
This technology not only holds potential for emissions reduction but also for cost efficiency. Most existing carbon capture projects in Canada – such as the Quest carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility also located at the Scotford refinery – utilize amine, a derivative of ammonia, to capture CO2. Alberta Innovates research indicates the cost to capture carbon with a molten carbonate fuel cell could be about 30 per cent less than the cost of amine-based technologies.
About molten carbonate fuel cells
Oil sands facilities burn natural gas to generate heat, steam and electricity needed for operations. Natural gas combustion creates CO2 that can be captured and purified. One capture method is to use molten carbonate fuel cells, which also generate electricity. A fuel cell converts chemical energy from a fuel (in this case, natural gas) into heat and electricity through an electrochemical process. Molten carbonate fuel cells contain an anode, a cathode and a molten electrolyte salt layer. The flow of electrons from anode to cathode through an external circuit produces electricity. In the oil sands application, fuel cells capture flue gas, a byproduct of bitumen upgrading. Flue gas, natural gas and oxygen are forced through a membrane into the fuel cell, which condenses CO2 from the gas stream, capturing carbon and creating an electric current. This approach to carbon capture is potentially more economical than other technologies because the electricity can be used to operate oil sands facilities or sold to the Alberta power grid. At commercial scale the technology can be retrofitted at existing oil sands mining operations that upgrade and refine bitumen. Molten fuel cell technology could reduce emissions by more than 70 per cent.