Powering a cleaner tomorrow

By Robert Perry, Ph.D.
GE Corporate, Powering, United States

My challenge
For the last three years, I have led several programs working on cost-effective solutions to capture CO2 from coal-fired power plants. This involves not only finding the right chemistry to react with CO2, but also designing energy-efficient processes that take up as little space as possible, use as little water as possible, and provide GE with business opportunities.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) issued a request for proposals for innovative carbon capture technologies that could lower the cost of electricity (COE) at these plants. If implemented, the existing technology could to increase the COE by 75 to 80 percent — the DOE’s challenge technology no greater than 35 percent.

My innovation
We have found two solutions, both of which use aminosilicones (which can be found in consumer products like hair conditioners and textile softeners). These materials capture CO2 more efficiently by offering substantially better physical properties, including a higher boiling point (which means they don’t evaporate as quickly) and greater thermal stability. They also do not require water.

One solution uses a mixture of triethyleneglycol and an aminosilicone to capture CO2, which we successfully demonstrated in the lab using simulated flu gas. The other approach is using a pure aminosilicone that, upon reaction with CO2, turns into a solid which can then be heated to release the CO2. This “Phase-Change” approach has the potential to reduce the COE even further than the solvent-based process.

The first project recently moved from lab scale to bench scale, which means we are now designing equipment to be built by the end of the year. Next year, we will operate the machine and begin collecting data to design a pilot plant prior to advancing to the commercialization stage.

We also are looking at nearer-term applications for this technology, including CO2 capture at cement plants, steel mills and other smaller power-producing facilities that burn fossil fuel. Finally, we are researching ways to turn the captured CO2 into a value-added product.

My motivation
Growing up, I always loved math and science. When I was a freshman in college, I knew I wanted to become a chemist. I was drawn to the sense of the unknown and the freedom to go places no one has gone before.

Now I work with a great team of chemists and chemical engineers who inspire me every day. Working on a technology that has the potential to make a big impact on the environment, our country and our company is incredibly exciting. While we’re still in the exploratory research phase and are just scratching the surface of where this could go, we’re optimistic about progress made so far… and the possibilities we’ve yet to uncover.

My impact
As climate change and global warming continue to generate more attention due to CO2 – a greenhouse gas – being released into the atmosphere, the need for solutions has intensified. Innovations in affordable and abundant energy will have a profound effect on all of the Earth’s inhabitants. Whether it comes from nuclear energy in the form of fusion or fission, solar or other renewable sources, this will remove the need for the myriad ways we currently gather energy – making coal mines, oil and gas wells, and deforestation things of the past. Until that occurs, we’ll focus on cleaning up the current fossil-fuel modes of power generation.

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