Clean Fossil Energy
Slashing greenhouse gas emissions
Many of the things you do every day such as drive your car, run your air conditioning, and turn on the lights rely on the burning of fossil fuels—that is, coal, oil, and natural gas. Burning fossil fuels for energy is one of the main causes of global warming. It's also the source of almost 85% of the world's energy.
While our nation transitions away from burning these carbon-emitting fuels and develops cleaner energy sources, we will still rely on fossil fuels for at least the next 100 years.
To help with the transition, we have assembled a team of scientists and engineers dedicated to keeping emissions, including greenhouse gases, produced by burning coal, oil, and natural gas, from harming the atmosphere.
We work in four areas:
Carbon capture [+ expand/ - collapse]
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main greenhouse gas that human beings produce and also one of the biggest contributors to global climate change. At PNNL, we are working to separate and capture carbon dioxide and other harmful gases affordably and effectively, and to speed the advancement of the technologies most worthy of commercialization. To this end, we have established the Emissions Capture Center (ECC). The ECC brings together PNNL laboratories, equipment, staff expertise, and processes to develop new technologies that can be scaled up, tested, and commercially deployed. To ensure that the technologies we advance are the best candidates for commercialization, the ECC provides a disciplined evaluation of each technology as it moves through the stages of development, allowing us to rapidly screen and mature technologies. Two new materials that have advanced to testing are:
- CO2-Binding Organic Liquids (CO2BOLS, pronounced co-balls), a robust and re-usable "all-in-one" solvent system for scrubbing carbon dioxide—and other acid gases—from the flue gases of coal-burning power plants. CO2BOLS uses much less energy than current methods for carbon capture and captures nearly 100 percent of acid gases released during energy production.
- Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs), a reusable catalyst with a unique three-dimensional structure that is highly selective and reactive, and performance that is up to 50 percent better than commercial catalytic materials in laboratory tests. MOFS is highly shape selective, allowing it to act like a sieve to pick and choose which molecules get to participate in the reaction.
Carbon sequestration (storage) [+ expand/ - collapse]
Storing carbon dioxide underground, called carbon sequestration, is one of several tools for solving global climate change. At PNNL, we are working on ways to prove carbon sequestration is safe and effective. We have specialized research to look at the chemical reactions between carbon dioxide, other harmful gases, and underground rock formations. We are using testing and modeling tools to translate molecular-level understanding to field-scale projects. We have even developed a unique data management and simulation tool that will help scientists and engineers from around the world share research findings and create computer models of possible reactions between carbon dioxide and rock formations. This tool also will be used to support regulatory permitting of new geologic sequestration sites and help monitor reservoir performance.
Sustainable hydrocarbon production and processing [+ expand/ - collapse]
Converting coal directly to fuel, instead of burning it, addresses two issues at once: reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. We are developing more efficient ways to convert coal and biomass (plant materials) directly to liquid fuels rather than burning coal. We also are creating ways to convert coal to a synthetic gas that burns more cleanly than coal. The electricity you use to power your household appliances and heat your home may some day be generated by non-polluting chemical conversion facilities rather than coal-burning power plants. Additionally, our researchers are improving processes that will allow us to extract more oil and gas out of difficult-to-mine wells, taking better advantage of domestic fuel resources.
Fuel cells [+ expand/ - collapse]
A fuel cell is a device that generates electricity by a chemical reaction. Solid-oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) are a type of fuel cell that produces electricity directly through a chemical reaction with hydrocarbons. Fuel cells offer a cleaner, more efficient alternative to burning fossil fuels and are being scaled-up for applications in stationary power generation. PNNL leads the Core Technology Program for the U.S. Department of Energy's Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance (SECA) where we are developing advanced materials that provide better fuel cell performance and affordability to encourage the widespread use of fuel cells. We also integrate fuel cells into sophisticated power systems for a variety of applications. For example, some of the long-haul refrigeration trucks that supply your local grocery stores will use small-scale fuel cell systems developed through SECA to keep products cool. Additionally, we developed a system that is being demonstrated by the U.S. Navy for unmanned, underwater vehicles. SOFCs also are being considered to power the electric systems of next-generation airliners, freeing up turbines to focus solely on powering the plane.
To learn more about work in this area, see the Energy Processes and Materials website.