​Oilsands operators look to fuel cells to manage carbon emissions

Image: FuelCell Energy

Carbon capture could play a key role in reducing oilsands greenhouse gas emissions, but the technology as proven today is costly.

Alberta Innovates is working with a group of oilsands producers—including both COSIA and non-COSIA members—to “develop and prove” a different approach that could improve the cost profile of carbon capture in part by adding another revenue stream to the process. 
What is it? Fuel cells.

Leading a consortium that includes Husky Energy, MEG Energy, BP, Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus Energy, Devon Canada, Shell and Suncor Energy, Alberta Innovates has signed a contract with FuelCell Energy for an engineering study on a fuel cell carbon-capture application.

The study will consider applying FuelCell’s technology, which was originally developed with a focus on capturing CO2 from coal-based power generation, at a Husky SAGD facility near Lloydminster as well as at Shell’s Scotford upgrader near Edmonton.

FuelCell’s technology was originally developed with a focus on capturing CO2 from coal-based power generation.

“Decarbonizing oilsands is something everyone is interested in doing,” says Tony Leo, vice-president of application engineering and new technology development at FuelCell.

“They have looked at conventional systems, and those systems cost money and require a lot of thermal [input]. What is revolutionary about this is it does not require all that thermal input, and it produces that power that can further support the operations. That has value.”

The study focuses on the ability of a fuel-cell power plant to separate and capture CO2 from both a SAGD heavy oil thermal facility and a bitumen upgrading facility, efficiently concentrating CO2 from the extraction process as a side reaction to power generation.

Key to the study is determining how a megawatt-scale power plant operating on natural gas can affordably capture up to 39.01 tonnes/d of CO2.

Kurt Goddard, vice-president of investor relations at FuelCell, says one of the neat aspects of this technology is that it is modular, meaning that subsequent fuel-cell power plants to capture more CO2 could be added over time and industry could make such decisions gradually, rather than all at once.

“There is a variety of different fuel cell technologies, and the technology we are using is unique in this ability to capture and concentrate CO2 while still producing power,” Goddard says.

“It is that producing power that sets the novel or differentiator of all this.”

A carbon capture–configured fuel cell power plant would use natural gas as the fuel source and process the flue gas from the natural gas–fired boiler at the heavy oil thermal facility into the fuel cell air system, where CO2 transfers across the fuel cell membrane for concentration in the fuel exhaust stream during power generation, says FuelCell.

“It will be modified so that it adds the equipment, basically, in order to extract the CO2. The way this process works is that the flue gas from the emissions source is directed into the air intake [and] into the fuel cell,” Leo says.

In addition to generating excess process water that results in a reduction of the overall water intensity of the host gas-fired plant, FuelCell’s fuel cells provides partial nitrogen oxide destruction. “As the gas flows over the fuel cell electrodes, about 70 per cent of that [nitrogen oxide] will be destroyed and reduced to nitrogen through interaction with the fuel cell catalyst itself,” says Leo. “That is an additional benefit.”

The consortium says the study should be completed by summer 2017, after which the the test facility will be selected. There will be preliminary cost estimates and interconnection cost estimates available as well.

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