April 30, 2010

Energy Roundup - Another Round of ARPA E funding and a Proposed Plan to Phase out Greenhouse Gas Emissions from US Coal by 2030

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1. The US Department of Energy is awarding $106 million in funding for 37 research projects selected in the second round by the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).
Technical details of the selections in pdf form
This second round of ARPA-E-funded research projects focuses on three critical areas:

1.“Electrofuels” - Biofuels from Electricity --- Today’s technologies for making biofuels all rely on photosynthesis – either indirectly by converting plants to fuels or directly by harnessing photosynthetic organisms such as algae. This process is less than 1% efficient at converting sunlight to stored chemical energy. Instead, Electrofuels approaches will use organisms able to extract energy from other sources, such as solar-derived electricity or hydrogen or earth-abundant metal ions. Theoretically, such an approach could be more than 10 times more efficient than current biomass approaches.

Harvard Medical School (Boston, MA) - Engineering a Bacterial Reverse Fuel Cell
This project would develop a bacterium to use electricity (which could come from renewable sources like solar or wind) to convert carbon dioxide into gasoline. The bacterium would act like a reverse fuel cell: where fuel cells use a fuel to produce electricity, this bacterium would start with electricity and produce a fuel. Research projects like this one demonstrate the great potential of bringing experts from other fields like biology and medicine to address our energy challenges. This project was selected for a $4 million grant from ARPA-E.

2. Better Batteries - Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation (“BEEST”) --- The critical barrier to wider deployment of electric vehicles is the high cost and low energy of today’s batteries. This ARPA-E program seeks to develop a new generation of ultra-high energy density, low-cost battery technologies for long range plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles. If successful, the technologies developed in this program will greatly improve U.S. energy security, spur economic growth, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

MIT (Cambridge, MA) - Semi-Solid Rechargeable Flow Battery This concept represents a new type of battery that doesn’t exist today: a semi-solid flow battery that combines the best characteristics of rechargeable batteries and fuel cells. It could enable batteries for electric vehicles that are much lighter and smaller - and cheaper - than today's batteries. The cost difference is dramatic: this flow battery potentially could cost less than one-eighth of today's batteries, which could lead to widespread adoption of affordable electric vehicles. This project was selected for a $5 million grant from ARPA-E.

3. Zero-Carbon Coal: Innovative Materials & Processes for Advanced Carbon Capture Technologies (“IMPACCT”) --- Coal-fired power plants currently generate approximately 50% of the electricity in the United States. But they also produce significant carbon pollution, which could have serious consequences for climate change. This ARPA-E program aims to support revolutionary technologies to capture carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants using a range of approaches, including solvents, sorbents, catalysts, enzymes, membranes, and gas-liquid-solid phase changes.

GE Global Research Center (Niskayuna, NY) - CO2 Capture Process Using Phase-Changing Absorbents
A GE researcher came across an exciting discovery as part of an earlier Department of Energy-funded project: a certain liquid, when it reacts with carbon dioxide, turns into a solid powder. This could lead to a much less expensive way to capture carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants -- the carbon dioxide in the powder can be much more easily separated from the plant's flue gases than gaseous carbon dioxide can. This project was selected for a $3 million grant from ARPA-E.

2. The Swedish government has approved OKG's plans to increase the electrical generating capacity of Unit 2 of the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant by almost 38%. The thermal power output of the boiling water reactor (BWR) will be increased from 1800 MW to 2300 MW.

3. A joint venture company has been officially established for the construction of China's first commercial-scale fast neutron reactor, near Sanming city in Fujian province

Russia and China are already cooperating on one fast reactor, a small 65 MWt sodium-cooled unit known as the Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor at the China Institute of Atomic Energy near Beijing. Commercial-scale fast reactors based on it were envisaged but these may now give way to the Russian BN-800 project, which would be the first time commercial-scale fast neutron reactors have ever been exported. In October 2009, a high-level agreement was signed for Russia to start pre-project and design works for two commercial 800 MWe fast neutron reactors in China, with construction due to start in August 2011

4. Developments in two US states could lead to the construction of new nuclear power plants. In Iowa, legislation has been passed to enable utilities to study building new power reactors, while in California Areva has firmed up its agreement to participate in a plant near Fresno.

5. Here are some statistics associated with the Gulf Oil Spill. The spill will likely result in less or more restriced deep water oil drilling for a few years.

6. The United States could completely stop emissions of carbon dioxide from coal-fired electric power plants -- a crucial step for controlling global warming -- within 20 years by using technology that already exists or could be commercially available within a decade.

The global climate problem becomes tractable if CO2 emissions from coal use are phased out rapidly and emissions from unconventional fossil fuels (e.g., oil shale and tar sands) are prohibited. This paper outlines technology options for phasing out coal emissions in the United States by 2030. We focus on coal for physical and practical reasons and on the U.S. because it is most responsible for accumulated fossil fuel CO2 in the atmosphere today, specifically targeting electricity production, which is the primary use of coal. While we recognize that coal emissions must be phased out globally, we believe U.S. leadership is essential. A major challenge for reducing U.S. emissions is that coal provides the largest proportion of base load power, i.e., power satisfying minimum electricity demand. Because this demand is relatively constant and coal has a high carbon intensity, utility carbon emissions are largely due to coal. The current U.S. electric grid incorporates little renewable power, most of which is not base load power. However, this can readily be changed within the next 2−3 decades. Eliminating coal emissions also requires improved efficiency, a “smart grid”, additional energy storage, and advanced nuclear power. Any further coal usage must be accompanied by carbon capture and storage (CCS). We suggest that near-term emphasis should be on efficiency measures and substitution of coal-fired power by renewables and third-generation nuclear plants, since these technologies have been successfully demonstrated at the relevant (commercial) scale. Beyond 2030, these measures can be supplemented by CCS at power plants and, as needed, successfully demonstrated fourth-generation reactors. We conclude that U.S. coal emissions could be phased out by 2030 using existing technologies or ones that could be commercially competitive with coal within about a decade. Elimination of fossil fuel subsidies and a substantial rising price on carbon emissions are the root requirements for a clean, emissions-free future.

8 pages of supplemental information

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