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Carbon dioxide-consuming fuel cell project wins development grant


Edmonton, AB – Can a fuel cell consume rather than produce carbon dioxide to create energy? That’s the $35-million question a University of Alberta Faculty of Engineering-led team is looking to answer as one of the 24 challengers moving onto the next round of a $35-million, Alberta-based competition designed to uncover innovative uses for carbon.

The entry, which is based on research by project-lead Thomas Etsell, a professor in the the university’s Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, revolves around the development of a high-temperature fuel cell technology that reacts methane, carbon dioxide and oxygen—known as dry reforming—to produce carbon monoxide, water and energy.

“A fuel cell is basically a continuous battery and we’re trying to develop a fuel cell that consumes fossil fuels more efficiently,” said Etsell. “The advantage of the high-temperature fuel cell is that it can be used for a variety of fuels such as natural gas, carbon monoxide and carbon, rather than being limited to pure hydrogen.”

Etsell says his team will be using dry reforming to produce a 50-50 ratio of carbon monoxide and hydrogen for the fuel cell. “We’re essentially turning one fuel into another by using up carbon dioxide and preventing the production of carbon dioxide as a byproduct because we’re not burning methane,” he said.

The goal of the project is threefold: use up carbon dioxide, produce electricity and produce carbon monoxide—an important ingredient for producing chemical materials such as polymers, acetic acid and methanol.

The Alberta-based Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC) launched the $35-million Grand Challenge Competition last year in an effort to identify the world’s best ideas to transform carbon dioxide into useful products. The CCEMC was created in 2009 as part of Alberta’s climate change strategy and is funded by Alberta industries emitting overages of greenhouse gases.

The 24 projects, selected from 344 submissions representing 37 countries, will each receive $500,000 in development funding over two years. Seven projects are from Canada, 14 from the United States and three from the United Kingdom. Moreover, seven projects are being researched by universities while the remaining 17 are being researched by companies.

“The advantage is that this is a novel idea and hasn’t been done before, but we don’t have other preliminary research to go on, so we’re basically starting from scratch,” Etsell said. “However, our research team has the background in fuel cell and catalysis research, which provides a good foundation for this project.”

The project is estimated to take five years and within the next two years the research team aims to develop a tubular fuel cell that allows the proposed process to work.

Etsell’s research team is made up interdisciplinary researchers, including Partha Sarkar, senior scientist at Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures, who is building small extruders for the fuel cell tubes; Jingli Luo, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, who is working on catalysts to increase the efficiency beyond 92 per cent; and Amir Hanifi, post-doctoral fellow, and Taghi Amiri, PhD candidate, will be working with Etsell to improve the fuel cell by trying to reduce the temperature, testing the extrusion, determining the quantities of fuels needed and finding the optimal conditions for reaction. Karl Chuang, professor emeritus in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, will play an advisory role in the project.

The second round of the Grand Challenge will launch in September 2015. Five winners will each receive a $3-million grant and in the third round of the challenge, a final project will be awarded a $10 million grant in 2018 to establish a business that annually reduces greenhouse gas in Alberta by one megaton.

“In regards to the competition, the thing is companies have been working on products and processes already for a number of years and we’re just starting with this new idea, so in comparison to the other competitors, we’re quite a ways behind in the timeline, but there is big potential with this idea,” Etsell said.

Etsell is working to secure a partnership with a company to scale-up the fuel cell from the lab setting to possible industrial implementation. In the lab, the team can reduce carbon emissions in grams, but in industry they could potentially reduce carbon by a megaton.

By Nicole Basaraba, University of Alberta