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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

M.I.T. develops cleaner natural gas power

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a new type of natural gas electric power plant with zero carbon dioxide emissions.

Postdoctoral associate Thomas Adams and Lammot du Pont Professor of Chemical Engineering Paul I. Barton are proposing a system that uses solid-oxide fuel cells to produce power from fuel without burning it.

The system would not require any new technologies but would combine existing components in a new configuration for which they have applied for a patent.

The system would run on natural gas that is considered more environmentally friendly that coal or oil. Presently, natural gas power plants produce an average of 1,235 pounds of carbon dioxide for every megawatt-hour of electricity produced, one third the emissions from coal power plants.

The system proposed by Mr. Adams and Mr. Barton would not emit any carbon dioxide into the air 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 (C.C.S.). One additional advantage of the proposed system is that, unlike a conventional natural gas plant with C.C.S. 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, Mr. Adams says.

Carbon pricing needed
The new system could produce power at cost comparable to or less than conventional natural-gas plants and even to coal-burning plants. However, the researchers said that this can only come about if and when a price is set on the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Carbon pricing attempts to take into account the true price exacted on the environment by greenhouse gas emission.

Mr. Adams explained that without costs imposed on carbon emissions, the cheapest fuel will always be pulverized coal. But as soon as there is some form of carbon pricing, their system will have the lowest price option as long as the pricing is more than about $15 per metric ton of emitted carbon dioxide.

Natural gas already accounts for 22 percent of all United States electricity production, and that percentage is likely to rise in coming years if carbon prices are put into effect.

For these and other reasons, a system that can produce electricity from natural gas at a competitive price with zero greenhouse gas emissions could prove to be an attractive alternative to conventional power plants that use fossil fuels.

M.I.T. develops cleaner natural gas power


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