An elderly man exercises in the morning as he faces chimneys emitting smoke behind buildings across the Songhua river in Jilin, Jilin province, China, Feb. 24, 2013. Reuters

A substantial contribution to human-induced climate change is from the burning of fossil fuels, an activity that literally gathered steam about 200 years ago, with the advent of the industrial revolution. The pace at which the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased since is unprecedented, and the reduction and control of CO2 emissions is the primary goal of all climate change mitigation policies.

Such policies are constantly thwarted partially by the need for energy, for which fossil fuels have been the primary source for well over two centuries now. But researchers from Ohio State University (OSU) may have come up with a solution that lets humanity have its fossil fuel cake and eat it too.

OSU engineers have developed processes that “economically convert fossil fuels and biomass into useful products including electricity without emitting carbon dioxide to the atmosphere,” according to a statement by the university Tuesday.

They published two papers in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, one of which describes a process to convert shale gas into methanol or gasoline while consuming CO2 that is produced in the reaction. The technology is also applicable to one other fossil fuel — coal — as well as to biomass. Described in the paper “Utilization of CO2 as a partial substitute for methane feedstock in chemical looping methane–steam redox processes for syngas production,” the process — under certain conditions — consumes not just all the CO2 produced in the reaction, but also additional carbon dioxide from outside.

Another interesting application of the technology is the production of syngas, or synthesis gas. It is a fuel gas mixture that includes carbon dioxide, and some of that CO2 could be what is produced in the burning of fossil fuels. The technology for doing this has been around for a while, but the OSU process has “the potential to lower the capital costs in producing… syngas… by about 50 percent over the traditional technology.”

The second paper, titled “Chemically and physically robust, commercially-viable iron-based composite oxygen carriers sustainable over 3000 redox cycles at high temperatures for chemical looping applications,” is about extending the lifetime of particles used in their conversion process, so that the technology — called chemical looping — can become commercially viable.

OSU Iron Oxide Particle
New materials under development at the Ohio State University, including a patented iron oxide particle (left), are enabling cleaner fossil fuel technologies. Jo McCulty/The Ohio State University

Liang-Shih Fan of OSU, who led the research, said in the statement: “Renewables are the future. We need a bridge that allows us to create clean energy until we get there — something affordable we can use for the next 30 years or more, while wind and solar power become the prevailing technologies.”

Fan and his colleagues have been working on this for years, and five years ago, already had chemical looping technology that captured 99 percent of the CO2 produced in the combustion of coal. But the problem was the lack of longevity of the iron oxide particles that allowed for the process to take place.

However, compared to the eight days of continuous operations that wore out the particles earlier, the new technology keeps them going for over eight months (under laboratory conditions).

“The particle itself is a vessel, and it’s carrying the oxygen back and forth in this process, and it eventually falls apart. Like a truck transporting goods on a highway, eventually it’s going to undergo some wear and tear. And we’re saying we devised a particle that can make the trip 3,000 times in the lab and still maintain its integrity,” Andrew Tong, another OSU researcher, said in the statement.