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Digging deeper into CERAWeek 2022’s emerging carbon-reduction technologies
Radically reducing the global carbon emissions problem will take hundreds of technological advances and process improvements that clean energy entrepreneurs say will help move the world towards a net-zero future.
At CERAWeek 2022, held in March in Houston, executives of major oil, power, and auto companies shared their big-picture visions for a cleaner future, while CERAWeek's Agora sessions gave opportunities to dozens of entrepreneurial firms to showcase how their technologies can offer significant energy use, emissions, and financial savings now.
Below are updates on five technologies presented at CERAWeek 2022, some still in pilot plant stage, and some with commercial applications that are ready for more widespread use. They range from low-emission valves to an all-in-one ammonia production plant to expanded use of age-old technologies geothermal energy and sail power.
Based in Houston, Zahroof Valves has developed the StraightFlo™ valve technology for reciprocating compressors to reduce unburned emissions, save fuel, and improve efficiency and serviceability of the valves.
Over 35,000 StraightFlo valves have been installed worldwide, and the company sees much greater potential globally for its modular reed systems. The valves are used in the production and distribution of natural gas, CO2, hydrogen, ammonia, and other industrial gases across a wide range of temperatures and pressures.
Conventional valves move gas through two or three 90-degree turns on its way to the compressor. They have seen little innovation in 50 years, said Javvad Qasimi, senior vice president of the privately held Zahroof.
"That traditional design creates efficiency losses. In a StraightFlo design, gas doesn't have to take a turn—it flows straight through the valve. We convert those valve losses into power savings and/or more throughput. We've seen 3% to 15% more efficiency over conventional valves," Qasimi told Net-Zero Business Daily by S&P Global Commodity Insights.
Beyond operational efficiency, StraightFlo valves are more durable; the company guarantees at least double the run time of conventional valves and says they can last up to 35 times longer. This means fewer blowdowns and flaring that comes with shutting down a compressor for valve maintenance.
With the modular design, valve replacement is a simpler process that avoids the time and expense to pull out, machine, and reinstall a conventional valve, Qasimi said. As a result, operators have the ability to reduce their inventory by about 80%.
In working in an industry that relies on a technology that hasn't changed much in 50 or even 100 years, Qasimi said education of customers is key. "After having proven our technology in 'problem' compressors, our biggest challenge today is to help operators scale the savings across their entire fleet," he said.
"We [can] retrofit compressor valves for their entire fleet … and move the needle on their bottom line, while enabling their short-term ESG [environmental, social, and governance] goals," he said.
Norsepower Rotor Sails
Sometimes, old technology can emerge to provide new solutions—and that's the case with Norsepower Rotor Sails, which is bringing back sails to cargo and passenger shipping as a way to reduce energy use and CO2 emissions.
Installations can be made on newbuild ships or as retrofits to existing vessels. To date, the company has installed sails of 18 meters to 24 meters high on six vessels for four shipping companies, including tankers and ferries. A seventh vessel will be outfitted by December, Norsepower told Net-Zero Business Daily.
The sails are borne by cylindrical masts that can be rotated electronically to capture wind as efficiently as possible, and they have already operated in a variety of conditions. Bore's M/V Estraden and Sea-Cargo's SC Connector operate in the North Sea; the Scandlines ferry, M/V Copenhagen, travels between Germany and Denmark; Vale's very large ore carrier Sea Zhoushan (which has five sails) travels between Brazil and China.
"All ocean routes provide good performance results for Rotor Sails. However, globally, the best routes globally are located in the northern Atlantic and northern Pacific," the company said in an email.
Experience with installations has found fuel consumption and emissions can be reduced by up to 25% when installed on ships operating on routes with higher speeds and steadier wind, the company said. The SC Connector also demonstrated that it can maintain regular service speed by sail alone under the right wind conditions, Norsepower said.
Norsepower offers five model sizes, appropriate for different vehicle profiles and operating routes. On the M/S Estaden, the company installed two of its smallest (18 meters by 3 meters) sails, which were used 81% of the time and reduced fuel consumption by 6.1%, according to an independent verification service.
Even more gains are possible from a partnership announced in April with NAPA Shipping Solutions, which has developed software to optimize shipping routes based on weather conditions and a vessel's particular configuration and capacities.
Membrane technology for gas separation is attractive to industrial processors as an alternative to energy-hungry options such as distillation or absorption. But membranes have their limitations, especially on the size of molecules that they can separate, known as "selectivity."
Osmoses, a young company based in Boston, says it has developed a new membrane technology that can provide separations with unprecedented selectivity, enabling the capture of CO2, purification of hydrogen and oxygen streams, and more.
"It's fairly simple to explain," said Francesco Maria Benedetti, CEO and co-founder. "Filters and membranes usually have a cutoff, a size below which … the molecules can't pass. We have managed to create a product, a polymer membrane, where the cutoff is in between the size of a CO2 molecule and the [nitrogen] molecule. The size of these two molecules differs from each other by a fraction of an angstrom, which is what makes this separation extremely challenging."
With precise porosity and even distribution of the pores, Osmoses can separate CO2 from nitrogen. Because the effective diameter of oxygen molecules is slightly smaller than that of CO2 and hydrogen is smaller than oxygen, the membrane serves to separate them from nitrogen and other bigger gases like methane as well.
Osmoses, which was incorporated in May 2021, is now moving from lab-scale to industrial-scale tests, and it expects to have protypes installed in commercial settings in 2023, Benedetti said.
The applications are wide, and they run across both carbon-reduction and clean energy strategies. For example, Osmoses believes its membranes can reduce the cost of carbon capture by 30-50% compared with amine absorption, Benedetti said. But the membranes also can separate hydrogen from methane, enabling shipping of hydrogen and methane blends through the same pipeline, with separation at point of use. They can separate hydrogen from nitrogen, if necessary, if ammonia is being used to deliver the carbon-free energy.
"Hydrogen, carbon capture, oxygen production, renewable natural gas—we think we have an unprecedented value proposition," he said.
What makes the Osmoses membrane different are the materials used to make it and the "laddering" of the polymers into new structures that are strong and highly selective. "That's where our intellectual property started," Benedetti said, as the company came out of work by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford PhD students and researchers. "We're using fairly standard manufacturing processes, so [we] can leverage existing structures for manufacturing. What's new is the materials and how we combine them."
Benedetti likens the situation to membranes used for desalinization projects around the world. "There's been a revolution in desalinization in the last 15 years as needs have increased. We are trying to bring the same membrane revolution into the gas separation space," he said.
The potential is vast, the Osmoses team believes. Benedetti said molecular separations represent 15% of global energy use and generate 16% of CO2 emissions annually, and the chemicals and related industries are under pressure to contribute their share to global carbon reductions.
For the last two years, investors have been betting that hydrogen is the green fuel of the future. But Starfire Energy said it believes the world's engines and turbines will ultimately run on ammonia made from zero-emission processes.
Starfire is developing a modular green ammonia production unit, each module able to fit in a single cargo container, that can take the hydrogen from water, nitrogen from air, and synthesize liquid ammonia using clean energy. The result: a portable, storable, high-Btu fuel produced without carbon emissions, and able to power anything from a utility's peaker power unit to a marine engine.
Work on the Rapid Ramp© Modular Ammonia Synthesis began in 2016, Starfire Energy CEO Joe Beach told Net-Zero Business Daily. "From the outset, we knew that if hydrogen could be liquefied at reasonable temperatures and pressures, we wouldn't need to do this. But it never will—it's chemistry," he said.
That's the realization hydrogen advocates around the world have reached, and their typical solution is to convert hydrogen to liquid ammonia, ship it, store it, and either use it directly as fuel or reconvert it to hydrogen gas for end use. Starfire offers a way to avoid the hydrogen storage issue entirely. And because the system is modular, a user can add as many units as needed to reach whatever volume is desired.
"The whole reason you build ammonia capacity is to avoid the high storage costs of hydrogen, so if you store hydrogen to allow a steady-state ammonia process, then you lose [that advantage]," Beach said.
While traditional chemical engineers can be skeptical that cost savings can be achieved by any means other than high-volume centralized facilities, Beach said the company has developed technologies that work at a much smaller scale. Rapid Ramp's ammonia synthesis module operates at 10% of the pressure of conventional synthesis, and Starfire uses adsorption to separate the ammonia, rather than the condensation typically used.
Because the systems will be identical, they can be mass produced on an assembly line, providing cost savings as well, he said.
On top of that, because the system operates at lower pressures, it can return to full operation in a few hours after the loss of power, unlike a large gas-fired plant that would lose two or three days in a shutdown. This is ideal for running Rapid Ramp on renewable power during times of excess power generation, providing the elusive "storage" versatility that is making batteries so popular.
Utilities seem to be getting the message, as Beach said at CERAWeek 2022, and at other forums where he has told executives that ammonia can be the fuel for peaking power units, replacing fossil fuel-based natural gas. "Ammonia is a highly dispatchable fuel that can be stored in appropriate quantities and can be stored in a chilled tank anywhere," he said.
In addition to use by utilities, Beach said that hydrogen fuel cell fleet operators are interested in ammonia, and big agriculture is knocking on his door. "In agriculture, the motivation can be decarbonization or just getting control of their ammonia costs, which have skyrocketed," Beach said.
The company is in the midst of pressure testing its third prototype, which is designed to produce 200 lb/day of liquid ammonia. "It has all the components of a full system," he said.
By 2025, he anticipates having units in commercial operation, and he sees an array of needs. "Whether a buyer [of a unit] wants to make ammonia for fleets or replace bunker fuel for shipping or for grid stabilization for a utility or for agricultural fertilizer—our systems are suitable for all of those applications," Beach said. "People are approaching ammonia with the perspective of the last hundred years that this is a commodity chemical. But we need to approach it from energy storage and fuel perspective."
Here's a radical idea for how an oil and gas producer might operate in the not-so-distant future. What if the same well was producing renewable energy along with hydrocarbons?
That's one potential impact of CeraPhi's geothermal energy technology that's drawing interest from North American and European oil producers. UK-based CeraPhi, founded in 2020, has developed a single-well, closed-loop geothermal energy system that it says can be adapted for repurposing existing wells. It can tap into geothermal heat either while a well is producing oil and gas, or it can become a new revenue stream from a depleted well that's reached the end of its life.
The single-well closed-loop system offers efficiency and environmental advantages over conventional geothermal, said Lafayette Herring, VP North America for CeraPhi. "Conventional geothermal projects require reservoir pressure and flow to push heat to the surface. You are tapping into that reservoir and then reinjecting the water back into the ground. We don't require subsurface flows or stimulation, which substantially reduces the environmental footprint."
With proprietary software, CeraPhi can analyze oil producers' well data to identify the ideal candidates for geothermal operations. It's less expensive than drilling a new geothermal well and also has no risk of coming up with a well that doesn't meet expectations. "They have the data on well depth, temperature, when they did their casing, etc.," Herring said.
The software can also identify where in a field to drill a new geothermal well if existing wells are not suitable for repurposing.
CeraPhi is not intending to be a geothermal well owner or operator, but rather the provider of the closed-loop technology and software to identify prospect wells that clients can develop.
Electricity production would be the most valuable use of geothermal heat, but Herring said the well would have to produce at about 150 degrees Celsius for baseload electricity. However, applications such as climate control for buildings, greenhouses, and other needs can be met at 60 degrees C or above, he said, and this is where geothermal can advance decarbonization goals.
Heating and climate control is the first application in Europe, and Herring said this will provide relief to electricity producers who are struggling to meet demand. "We're decarbonizing power at the same time we're trying to electrify everything," he said. "If geothermal energy can take some of the pressure off the electricity grid, it helps reliability for the grid and keeps costs down."
In the US, Herring said the first applications will likely be for oil and gas producers. For example, geothermal heat could support onsite energy needs or run a gas processing plant or compressors, he said. "We think those are great candidates for a pilot project," Herring said.
Geothermal energy hasn't enjoyed the massive influx of capital in North America that other carbon strategies have attracted in recent years. Herring said that while sitting with fellow geothermal industry members after a panel discussion, they calculated that capital investment in the industry's new-tech startups is less than $400 million, or far less than a single hydrogen or carbon capture and storage project. But he believes its time is coming.
One source of geothermal funding has opened up under the Biden administration, but Herring is skeptical it will yield good results. As part of the $1.5-billion program to cap abandoned oil and gas wells and reduce methane emissions that was announced in January, states can grant funds to geothermal projects at abandoned wells. Herring believes this is a risky proposition because the information about an abandoned well's depth, heat, and other characteristics often isn't available or accurate. Quite simply, working with active wells is a better bet, he said.
For active operators, Herring said CeraPhi can literally change the equation of what they produce and bring them squarely into the clean energy mainstream. "I'm talking with public oil companies with thousands of wells. They're desperate to have ESG assets," Herring said. "If some percentage of their end-of-life wells could produce renewable energy, they would keep them…. We think this is a clean energy business that will reduce future abandonments."
Whether it's co-producing heat to run operations on an offshore platform or turning a tapped-out well into a reliable geothermal source, Herring said oil companies can get into the clean energy business without straying from their expertise. "It's in an oil and gas company's and field servicer's wheelhouse of knowledge on subsurface operations and wellhead management," he said.
Herring tells them to think about geothermal as extending the life of their assets. "Maybe they drilled their well 15 years ago. Then that well was fracked eight years ago, and the horizontal drills were reworked after five years [to wring out] more production," he said. "Now, it's geothermal. We want geothermal to be the last drilling crew on their well."
This article was published by S&P Global Commodity Insights and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.
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