Turning Greenhouse Gases into Fuels, Chemicals University of California, Riverside
Diagram shows how the researchers propose to turn carbon dioxide into methanol.

A team led by a University of California, Riverside researcher won a nearly $500,000 grant to study a process that transforms greenhouse gas emissions into fuels and chemicals using a unique catalyst.

“The proposed approach is very attractivebecause this technology will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it has the potential to create new revenues from what is essentially a waste stream,” said Arun Raju, an assistant research engineer at the Bourns College of Engineering – Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT).

Raju, and his partner on the project, James J. Spivey, the J. Shivers and C. Eidt professor of chemical engineering at Louisiana State University, received the $500,000 (Canadian) prize as part of the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corp. (CCEMC) Grand Challenge: Innovative Carbon Uses grant competition.

In the process proposed by Raju and Spivey, carbon dioxide would be captured from large-scale emitters such as coal or natural gas power plants. The carbon dioxide would then be reacted with methane (natural gas) and steam to produce synthesis gas, (commonly referred to as syngas), which is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The conversion process is known as “bi-reforming.”

The syngas would then be converted to methanol — a basic chemical building block of paints, solvents and plastics. Demand for methanol is expected to increase in the coming years.

According to the research team, the novelty of the process is the catalyst for the bi-reforming reaction, referred to as pyrochlores. Temperatures of about 1650°F (900°C) typically are required to produce syngas. Few materials can withstand these temperatures when coupled with the presence of steam.

Research by Spivey’s team at Louisiana State University has found that pyrochlores have demonstrated the necessary thermal stability in a similar reaction, the carbon dioxide reforming of methane (dry reforming). However, they have not been tested in the “bi-reforming” of carbon dioxide and steam to produce syngas. The researchers will do that testing with this grant funding.

The CCEMC Grand Challenge is a $35 million, three stage international grant competition aimed at identifying technologies that can convert carbon dioxide into fuels or chemicals while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by one million tons or more per year. In April 2007, the Canadian province of Alberta became the first jurisdiction in North America to pass climate change legislation requiring large emitters to reduce greenhouse gasemissions. The CCEMC was created in 2009 to be a key part of Alberta’s climate change strategy. The CCEMC focuses on stimulating transformative change by funding projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help Alberta adapt to climate change. Funding for the CCEMC is sourced from Alberta’s large industrial emitters.

In Alberta, large emitters have a mandatory legislated requirement to achieve specified reductions of greenhouse gases. If they’re unable to reach their target one option is to pay a levy of $15 per tonne (a metric ton, or 1,000 kilograms) into the Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund. The fund is administered by the government of Alberta and the CCEMC receives grants from the fund to support its work.

Raju and Spivey are one of 24 winners of the stage one competition. CCEMC received 344 applications in response to the challenge announcement. In two years, they can compete for phase two, in which five groups will receive $3 million (Canadian) to further develop their projects. Two years after that, in stage three, one group will receive $10 million (Canadian) to fund commercialization of the technology.

A preliminary analysis found that the proposed technology, if implemented in commercial scales, has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one million tons per year or more.