Posts Tagged ‘carbon dioxide’

Carbon dioxide – aka CO2 – has a lousy reputation in today’s world. Most of us regard it as a significant greenhouse gas contributor to atmospheric heating and all the bad climate stuff that comes with it: heat domes, wildfires, droughts, flash floods, mudslides, loss of land, loss of property, loss of life. The best available science warns us not to keep adding more CO2 to what’s already up in the air, so it’s understandable that our basic instinct is to capture it before emission, pump it into caverns underground, and leave it there.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) is already being implemented in subterranean spaces such as depleted oilfields. The CO2 is captured from power stations and industrial facilities such as cement works, and either directly piped or shipped to the disposal point.

As a business model it is capital intensive and relies on the costs of sequestration being sufficiently lower than the costs of emission to make the undertaking economically viable. Also CCS intrinsically demonstrates a preference for permanent disposal over carbon re-utilization and implicit in that choice is a value assessment of the carbon contained in CO2.

Such an assessment is not easily made without familiarity with carbon’s capacity to form bonds with itself and other atoms, a knowledge of what that means in terms of carbon’s oxidation state range, and an understanding of how that range makes carbon a suitable vehicle for energy storage and release, as well as feedstock for a broad spectrum of industrially useful molecules.

It is asking a lot of those educated in political science rather than physical science to make reasoned judgements on the desirability of permanent disposal or carbon re-utilization. And it is rare indeed for heads of government to have skills in both disciplines, although it has been known.

Fortunately however, state-backed investments in CCS need not carry the risk of being the wrong choice long term because it has been shown possible to re-utilize sequestered CO2. Here’s how.

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The Sabatier-Senderens reaction

In 1897, two French chemists discovered that carbon dioxide could be reduced by hydrogen over a nickel catalyst at elevated temperature and pressure to form methane and water vapor. This is the same carbon transformation that occurs in the Carbon Cycle via photosynthesis and the gradual degradation of biomass to coal, oil and natural gas – a process that takes Nature millions of years to accomplish. Sabatier and Senderens found a way to do it in real time.

Now consider the conditions in the underground caverns where carbon dioxide gas is sequestered. The temperature is elevated and so is the pressure. And in the pores of the geological formations holding the gas there are microbes capable of catalyzing the Sabatier-Senderens reaction. All it needs is to add hydrogen, which can be produced electrolytically from water using solar or wind.

To get technical for a moment, it is instructive to apply Hess’s Law (G.H. Hess, 1840) to the electrolysis of water and the Sabatier-Senderens reaction

In effect the energy released by the combustion of hydrogen is being used to reverse the combustion of methane, the energy being stored in the stable C-H bonds of the methane molecule. Note that the oxygen is formed above ground during electrolysis and is either stored for commercial use or vented to the atmosphere.

The pressurized subterranean gas can be piped up and passed through a separator where methane is extracted and carbon dioxide and hydrogen are returned underground to continue the reaction. Now if the sequestered CO2 was captured before emission, it would defeat the object to use the methane in the energy supply infrastructure since combustion would simply release CO2 to the atmosphere. So what can be done with this methane? The next section supplies the answer.

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Tri-Reforming Methane


An LNG tanker

Methane (CH4) has certain characteristics which make it attractive as an energy carrier. It is not difficult to liquefy at 1 atmosphere pressure, it is energy dense and relatively efficient to transport as LNG (Liquid Natural Gas). So it is a practical proposition for methane gas produced in underground caverns to be transported to plants where CO2 capture is taking place.

Again to get technical for a moment, we notice that the oxidation states of carbon in the two molecules are at opposite ends of the scale. Methane has the most reduced form of carbon (-4) while carbon dioxide has the most oxidized form of carbon (+4). A redox reaction between the two looks possible and indeed is possible, albeit at elevated temperatures:

This catalyzed process, by which two greenhouse gases are converted into two non-greenhouse gases, is called dry reforming of methane (DRM) and was first introduced by Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch in Germany in the 1920s. The 1:1 mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen is called syngas (synthesis gas), a key intermediate in the production of industrially useful molecules.

Germany’s dynamic duo: Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch

Because of the high process temperature, DRM also results in thermal decomposition of both methane and carbon dioxide and the deactivating deposition of carbon on the catalyst. This problem can however be mitigated in a very neat way by combining DRM with another methane reforming process, namely steam reforming (SRM). This not only re-utilizes the deposited carbon but also adds another syngas product with a 3:1 ratio:

All these reactions are endothermic (requiring heat). This heat can be supplied by adding oxygen to the reactant stream, which allows partial oxidation of methane (POM) and catalytic combustion of methane (CCM) to take place, both of which are exothermic reactions (producing heat):

Putting three reforming agents – carbon dioxide, water and oxygen – together in the reactant stream with methane feedstock creates a sufficiently energy-efficient overall process known as Tri-reforming.

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Bringing it all together

We have seen that the decision to avoid CO2 emissions to the atmosphere by employing capital intensive Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) in subterranean locations such as depleted oilfields does not preclude the subsequent or concurrent addition of hydrogen to facilitate a gas phase redox reaction in which carbon dioxide is converted into energy-rich methane.

Methane feedstock can efficiently be transported to plants where CO2 capture is taking place and fed into a tri-reforming reactor together with carbon dioxide, oxygen and steam to create commercially valuable syngas and obtain a return on CCS investment through the production of industrially useful carbon-containing molecules that do not pose a greenhouse gas risk.

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Suggested further reading

A mini-review on CO2 reforming of methane
Published in June 2018 this is a useful and easily readable grounder covering the thermodynamic, kinetic, catalysis and commercial aspects of the subject.

Tri-reforming: a new process for reducing CO2 emissions
A bedrock paper (January 2001) from the legendary Chunshan Song at Penn State.

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P Mander February 2022

Credit: Carbon Engineering

Direct Air Capture (DAC) is the somewhat misleading term that has come into use for chemical fixation processes designed to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Chemical fixation of atmospheric CO2 is nothing new – organisms capable of photosynthesis are thought to have evolved billions of years ago, while limestone formation from CO2 taken up by the oceans has been occurring for hundreds of millions of years. But mankind hasn’t had a go at it until recently.

The driving force behind the development of DAC is the conviction based on the best available science that current (and rising) atmospheric CO2 levels constitute an existential threat due to global warming and climate change, as well as ocean acidification and marine ecosystem disruption. There is a desire for technologies to augment both naturally-occurring fixation processes and emission-reducing initiatives in order to accelerate the process of bringing the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels to a halt and subsequently to achieve drawdown.

To put this task in perspective, let’s put a few facts and figures into it. Carbon dioxide is a thermodynamically stable gas and the densest component of air, 1.977 kgm-3 at STP compared with 1.293 kgm-3 for air. This does not mean however that CO2 sinks in air and accumulates in the lower atmosphere. Like any gas, CO2 exhibits the phenomenon of diffusion, which is the tendency of a substance to spread uniformly throughout the space available to it. And this is where the challenge of DAC lies. Although there is a lot of CO2 – ca. 3210 gigatonnes in 2018 (ref) – up in the air, the atmosphere is a big place and the concentration of CO2 (currently around 410 ppm) is tiny in the context of extraction. In other words a large amount of air needs to be processed for a modest rate of capture. It is therefore relevant to consider the processes of capture and conversion from a carbon oxidation state perspective, which has a direct bearing on process thermodynamics and economics.

Note: If it proves possible to reduce the partial pressure of CO2 in the atmosphere through DAC, oceanic release of dissolved CO2 should take place according to Henry’s Law to restore equilibrium between oceanic and atmospheric partial pressures. If this were the case, the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere could not be achieved separately from removing CO2 from the vastly bigger ocean reservoir, and the task of stopping the rise of the Keeling curve could not be separated from the rise in oceanic acidification. This would add a whole new dimension to the task of drawdown.

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Oxidation states and conversion energy

Carbon can exist in nine oxidation states, which are conveniently if somewhat abstractly represented by dimensionless numbers ranging from +4 (most oxidized state) to –4 (most reduced state). The lower the number, the more energy is present in carbon’s chemical bonds. So the process of reducing a carbon compound requires energy, the amount of which increases with the degree of reduction.

As the table shows, carbon in carbon dioxide has the highest oxidation state (+4). In terms of conversion energy requirement, it is self-evident that the least demanding option is to capture CO2 without reduction for subsequent release, containment and onward supply to industry. Capture technologies such as aqueous alkanolamine absorption are well-known, but in terms of product use it should be noted that carbon dioxide applications such as synthetic fuel feedstock and carbonated beverages will lead to atmospheric re-release and therefore cannot contribute to CO2 drawdown.

Note that Mother Nature makes use of CO2 capture without reduction in the process of oceanic uptake. The oxidation state of carbon in the carbonate ion that eventually becomes chemically fixed in limestone is still +4.

Turning to carbon dioxide capture with conversion, the oxidation state table shows that there are eight levels of reduction, each possessing its own product outcomes and synthetic opportunities. The formulas shown in the table indicate two strands in the reduction process – the addition of hydrogen and the removal of oxygen (for simplicity I have restricted the examples to combinations solely of C, H and O).

If we ask ourselves the question – What conversion process can we apply such that the energy requirement for reduction of CO2 is minimized, the answer suggests itself: a process that reduces the carbon oxidation state by just one unit, from +4 to +3.

Simple arithmetic suggests this can be achieved by combining two atoms of hydrogen with two molecules of carbon dioxide. And this is borne out in practice, although as we shall see the reducing agent need not necessarily be hydrogen.

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Converting carbon dioxide to oxalic acid

Consider a DAC process in which two moles of carbon dioxide are captured from the atmosphere and converted into one mole of oxalic acid (involving the addition of a mole of hydrogen). Now think about density change. Carbon dioxide is a gas, two moles of which occupy 44.8 liters at STP. Oxalic acid is by contrast a solid, a mole of which occupies 0.0474 liters. So in this conversion process the carbon atoms get packed into a space which is 946 times smaller. Woo. And because oxalic acid is a solid there is no requirement for pressurized containment or its associated cost.

One method by which this capture and conversion process can be realized has been published by researchers at Louisiana State University (ref). The chemical capture unit is built out of four pyridyltriazole chelating units linked by two meta-xylylene groups; complexation with CuCl2 gives a dimeric macrocycle which following cation reduction to Cu+ by sodium ascorbate is able to selectively capture and convert two carbon dioxide molecules into an oxalate ion as shown here

The oxalate ion is released as oxalic acid when treated with dilute mineral acid, regenerating the original copper complex. The reaction conditions are mild, reflecting the minimal reduction of carbon oxidation state from +4 to +3.

As I understand it the essential reaction sequence is as follows:

The oxidation of the ascorbate ion to a radical cation would appear to provide the thermodynamic impulse for this electron transfer sequence. Obviously there are other anions involved here, but the paper didn’t detail them so nor can I. What is evident however is that the energy demands of this process are modest, as one would anticipate for a unit reduction in oxidation state.

This paper was published 5 years ago as exploratory work. The kinetics in particular needed improvement and no doubt this has been addressed in further studies. My point in highlighting this work is to show the advanced level of innovation in facilitating oxidation state reductions by which atmospheric CO2 can be converted to carbon compounds of significant synthetic potential.

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Electrochemical reduction

With an enthalpy of formation ΔHf = -393 kJmol-1, carbon dioxide is a very thermodynamically stable compound. This explains why electrochemical reduction routes using the power of cathodic electrons have been sought to produce a CO2 anion which can enter into protic or aprotic reaction yielding formate or oxalate ions.

In Europe the acronym-intensive SPIRE (Sustainable Process Industry through Resource and Energy Efficiency) Association representing innovative process industries has a project running called OCEAN, which stands for Oxalic acid from CO2 using Electrochemistry At demonstratioN scale. OCEAN aims to develop an electrochemical process for producing high-value C2 chemicals from carbon dioxide via the following sequence:

1) reduce carbon dioxide (C1,+4) to formate (C1,+2)
2) dimerize formate (C1,+2) to oxalate (C2,+3)
3) protonate oxalate (C2,+3) to oxalic acid (C2,+3)
4) reduce oxalic acid (C2,+3) to glycolic acid (C2,+1)

The oxidation state sequence by which oxalic acid (4→2→3) and glycolic acid (4→2→3→1) are obtained from CO2 looks a bit lossy from an energy efficiency perspective, but this is just my impression. The project is running from October 2017 for four years and is EC-financed to the tune of €5.5 m.

Details of the OCEAN project can be found on these links:

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P Mander July 2019