Posts Tagged ‘steam reforming’

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

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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