Ohio R&D partners pitch chemical looping as a low-carbon fossil fuel ‘bridge’

What if you could use combustible fuel without actually burning it and releasing carbon dioxide into the air? R&D project partners in Ohio developed a way to turn fossil fuels and biomass into useful energy sources without releasing CO2. It’s considered a “bridge” technology useful for decarbonizing existing energy production methods.

Today, Akron, Ohio-based energy and environmental tech firm Babcock & Wilcox announced that it now has an exclusive global license for a technology developed in collaboration with Ohio State University: a chemical looping process and oxygen carrier particle that can produce hydrogen, steam, and/or syngas while reducing carbon emissions.

The innovation chemically harnesses energy from the combustible feedstocks — including natural gas, biogas from biomass, and coal — and isolates the carbon dioxide before it can be released.

“In the simplest sense, combustion is a chemical reaction that consumes oxygen and produces heat,” Liang-Shih Fan, Ohio State engineering professor, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, it also produces carbon dioxide, which is difficult to capture and bad for the environment. So, we use a method for releasing the heat without combustion.”

This is a “game-changing solution for clean energy production with near zero carbon emissions,” Brandy Johnson, B&W vice president for global engineering, said in a statement.

For example, the partners say that installing this technology at coal power plants can capture at least 95% of the CO2 they emit.

The technology

Chemical looping systems use metal oxides to provide oxygen for the combustion process. Iron oxides — the best known being rust — are one example. 

The metal oxide reacts with a fuel without actually burning the fuel. This produces highly concentrated carbon dioxide, which gets isolated. Next, the metal oxide goes into a chamber where it is regenerated by coming into contact with air. Then it is reintroduced into the system, thus completing the loop.

The Ohio State team developed tiny iron oxide beads to activate the chemical reaction. The particles are abundant and versatile so they can be used with many types of fuel. For this project, the fuels include natural gas, biogas from biomass, and pulverized coal.

What’s next

Chemical looping has been around for centuries, and Fan has been working on the process for more than 30 years. But the technological complexities and challenges thus far have hindered commercialization. The Ohio partners’ advancement sets the technology on the path toward full commercialization. 

The 20-year license will let Babcock & Wilcox sell the technology to a variety of global utility and industrial customers including hydrogen producers, fossil fuel producers, and other manufacturers.

We’re currently in discussions with customers about opportunities for using this technology in their operations, and we are eager to look for additional opportunities to scale up this breakthrough technology for commercial use,” Johnson said.

The partners will continue to work together on other energy tech R&D projects. Meanwhile, chemical looping will provide a bridge technology for clean energy generation until renewables like solar and wind become more widely available and affordable, Fan said.

“We need a bridge that allows us to create clean energy until we get there — something affordable we can use for the next 30 years or more, until wind, biomass, solar, green hydrogen, and other renewable energy become the prevailing technologies,” he said.