Tech Breakthroughs on the Horizon for Natural Gas and Oil
John D. Siciliano
Posted September 11, 2020
New groundbreaking technologies to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere provide a glimpse of what could very well be the next big breakthrough for the natural gas and oil industry.
New technologies have the power to change the impossible to possible. We’ve long argued that industry’s ability to innovate and develop new technologies – including game-changers such as fracking – are key to our energy future. But such technological breakthroughs have been underestimated in the past, and aren’t always reflected in formal projections that are based on what is currently known and available.
Just imagine a natural gas power plant that emits zero CO2 emissions. The first preliminary tests on just such a power plant were conducted two years ago by a collaboration led by the company Net Power. The tests were so promising that the plant made it into the MIT Technology Review’s list of the top 10 breakthrough technologies.
More tests still have to be done, and challenges remain, but that hasn’t stopped the widespread attention. The scientific journal Nature also noted the development, saying it could usher in a new era of clean energy from fossil fuels. Bloomberg said the company “cracked” the code when it comes to making CO2 capture for natural gas and oil a commercial reality.
This potential revolution in fossil-fired power production makes use of an innovative concept that recycles the CO2 generated by a natural gas plant into a secondary fuel source to produce even more electricity. Any leftover CO2 can be sold for a number of marketable uses, or be stored in secure geologic formations
In trials, this technology, developed by chemical engineer Rodney Allam, appears to build upon the carbon-capture technologies that have been deployed so successfully at facilities like Petra Nova and Boundary Dam. If raised to commercial scale, the Allam Cycle power plant could be a game-changer on the level of hydraulic fracturing, which revolutionized the U.S. energy production sector a decade ago.
But Allam’s marvel isn’t the only technology breakthrough on the horizon. ExxonMobil recently published the results of research it helped conduct with the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, successfully demonstrating a new technique to reduce carbon emissions from refineries and power plants. The new technique uses steam to eliminate 90% of CO2 emissions, and is six times more efficient than current carbon-capture technologies.
Another breakthrough for natural gas and oil could also come from the most abundant element in the universe – hydrogen. Turns out, natural gas is the most common means of producing hydrogen. It is also true that when hydrogen is combusted or used in a fuel cell, the only byproduct is water vapor. There has also been a lot of attention given to hydrogen lately for steel production.
This is why many countries, and even some states in the U.S., are already taking steps to switch to infrastructure that pairs the low-CO2 benefits of hydrogen with the Btus of natural gas-fueled electricity.
Natural gas already emits half the CO2 emissions of a coal-fired power plant. In fact, the rise of natural gas to become the leading U.S. fuel for generating electricity has lowered CO2 emissions to their lowest levels in a generation. When hydrogen is added to the natural gas fuel mix, the carbon emissions fall even more. That’s why Utah’s Intermountain Power Agency is currently converting one of its large coal-fired power plants to use a mixture of hydrogen and natural gas. The agency says this will result in a 75% reduction in carbon emissions compared to a coal-fired plant. The lower emissions come from burning a mixture of 30% hydrogen with natural gas. The global engineering firm Black & Veatch announced in June that it will help develop the plant as part of the Intermountain Power Project Renewal Project, with the plant becoming operational by 2025.
In Asia, the benefits of natural gas as a producer of hydrogen are also being seriously considered in shaping the future energy reality of the region. For instance, South Korea has taken its first steps toward implementing a plan with chemical giant Linde to transition the country to hydrogen – getting both electricity and transportation met by the clean-burning fuel. Japan is also getting into the hydrogen mix, with the first liquefied hydrogen carrier launching in December, drawing the attention of observers around the world. And since natural gas will play a significant role as the feedstock for hydrogen, large regional gas producers like Australia are also looking to become hydrogen exporters in the very near future. Australia envisions producing hydrogen using natural gas plants with CO2 capture, in addition to using electrolysis from solar and wind energy.
Still, other breakthroughs are on the way, especially when it comes to advanced materials. Such things as microscopic nanotubes, as thin as a human hair, can be created using the captured CO2 from oil and natural gas, and used as the raw material for any number of applications, ranging from advanced electronics to construction materials.
These nanotubes could be used to replace steel and other metals, which researchers say would dramatically reduce global CO2 emissions from the steel manufacturing process, while producing a superior and more versatile material.
Rice University is looking at ways to use natural gas to produce these carbon-based super materials. The university received a federal grant to examine how to turn methane into carbon nanotubes for conductive materials that can replace metals. Such a transition could reduce CO2 emissions dramatically, as higher emitting processes used to extract metal and ore are replaced with nanotube production.
Matteo Pasquali, the professor and chemical engineer leading the Rice University initiative, said:
“With our new concept, we will convert directly natural gas into materials made of carbon nanotubes. Based on their properties, these materials can displace metals while providing major weight savings. At the same time, we will generate hydrogen from the hydrocarbon decomposition process, and this hydrogen can be used to offset the energy costs of making the material or as valuable energy carriers for transportation.”
Moving forward, the industry believes that technologies should be evaluated based on their potential for widespread deployment at the lowest cost for greenhouse gas emissions abatement.
It is clear that the natural gas and oil industry should not be overlooked in achieving the goals of a cleaner, less emitting, and more technologically innovative future. In many cases, the industry is seen as a leader in providing the building blocks and raw materials to meet all of the world’s future energy demands.
About The Author
John Siciliano is a writer for API Global Industry Services’ Marketing and Communications Department. He joined API after 14 years as an energy and environment reporter and editor. Most recently, he was senior energy and environment writer for the Washington Examiner and the Daily on Energy newsletter. He began full-time reporting in Washington in 2001 as a foreign affairs correspondent, also covering national security and defense. His coverage of the Mideast and Saudi Arabia led him to become a full-time energy reporter. He earned a bachelors degree in psychology from Ohio Northern University, and he also holds a Masters of Science degree in education from the Franciscan University of Steubenville.