ExxonMobil Corp., whose CEO is known for not taking bets on anything that doesn’t make money, announced Thursday it is collaborating with FuelCell Energy Inc. on carbon capture to reduce emissions from power plants that burn natural gas and coal.

The multi-year effort is designed to reduce the cost of cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from new and existing plants, with an overall goal to take the technology global. FuelCell CEO Chip Bottone and ExxonMobil’s Vijay Swarup, vice president for research and development (R&D) at the company’s research unit, discussed the venture during a conference call.

“We are constantly looking for solutions to solve the biggest challenges out there,” Swarup said. “Carbon capture is a big, big challenge.”

Feasibility testing at ExxonMobil has been ongoing for about two years and is “at a point where technology warrants further research” to build on a concept conceived by one of the company’s R&D scientists about four years ago.

“It’s a huge opportunity to make a significant impact on carbon reduction in the world,” Bottone said.

Using fuel cells to capture CO2 from power plants results in reduced emissions and increased power generation. In the carbon capture system (CCS) context, power plant exhaust is directed to the fuel cell, replacing air that is normally used in combination with natural gas during the fuel cell power generation process. As the fuel cell generates power, the CO2 becomes more concentrated, allowing it to be more easily captured from the cell’s exhaust and stored.

The scope of the agreement initially is to address how to improve efficiency in separating and concentrating CO2 from the exhaust of gas-fueled power turbines.

“Depending on reaching several milestones, the second phase will more comprehensively test the technology for another one to two years in a small-scale pilot project prior to integration at a larger-scale pilot facility,” the partners said.

There’s not a specific dollar amount allotted to the new collaboration, but a team of scientists from both companies is tied to the venture. As to what a finished system might cost, Bottone said the economics so far speak for themselves.

“The key thing here is that with the carbon fuel cell, under normal conditions…we take ambient air and we bring in methane, either natural gas or biogas,” he said of FuelCell’s technology. The Danbury, CT-based company’s fuel-cell power plants are deployed in more than 50 locations around the world.

“What we’re doing here is we’re going to continue to take that intake of methane, for the most part, natural gas, and then introduce from the ambient air the slipstream, from either the coal plant or the natural gas exhaust…

“The economics here are slightly different than you would have as another device that basically just removes or concentrates CO2 because as we’re concentrating and removing that CO2, we’re actually producing power. That’s our offset. So we actually have revenue off of this, as compared to just the cost of operation. The obvious result is, we’re cleaning up or capturing our concentrated CO2.”

Based on studies to date, the economics are “affordable for what basically is a bolt-on device for an existing power plant,” he said. “Ultimately, what we’re trying to get to is large-scale, where the economics speak for themselves…and it becomes a pull rather than a push strategy here for the utility companies to deploy these things.”

FuelCell already has a $19 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to fund the technology. The company currently has power plants that produce electricity from natural gas using a CCS, which relies on a chemical reaction to produce fewer emissions. The CCS routes the exhaust through fuel cells, separating the CO2 and producing electricity that may be sold.

ExxonMobil would bring the muscle. It already has feasibility tests to date on capturing CO2 from coal plants, but the FuelCell venture would zero in on gas turbines, Swarup said.

For example, based on initial tests, the partners have determined that a typical 400 MW gas plant, using fuel cell CCS technology, may be able to extract 90% of the CO2, while producing 120 MW of electricity. Existing CCS technologies use about 50 MW of power to extract and bury the CO2.

The “primary objective” of the venture is to “concentrate” the CO2, Swarup said.

“Our scientists saw the potential for this exciting technology for use at natural gas power plants to enhance the viability of carbon capture and sequestration, while at the same time generating additional electricity. We sought the industry leaders in carbonate fuel-cell technology to test its application in pilot stages to help confirm what our researchers saw in the lab over the last two years.”

FuelCell has power plants worldwide that generate more than 4 billion kWh of power using renewable biogas from wastewater treatment and food processing, as well as natural gas. It also has more than 300 MW of capacity installed or in backlog for utilities, industrial operations, universities, municipal water treatment facilities, government installations and other customers.

“Carbon capture with carbonate fuel cells is a potential game-changer for affordably and efficiently concentrating carbon dioxide for large-scale gas and coal-fired power plants,” Bottone said. “Ultra-clean and efficient power generation is a key attribute of fuel cells and the carbon capture configuration has the added benefit of eliminating approximately 70% of the smog-producing nitrogen oxide generated by the combustion process of these large-scale power plants.”

Integrating carbonate fuel cells and gas-fired power generation already have demonstrated that CO2 can be captured “more efficiently than existing scrubber conventional capture technology,” according to ExxonMobil. “The potential breakthrough comes from an increase in electrical output using the fuel cells, which generate power, compared to a nearly equivalent decrease in electricity using conventional technology.”

The net benefit has the potential to substantially reduce costs associated with CCS for gas-fired power generation, compared to the expected costs associated with conventional separation technology. A key component of the research is to validate initial projected savings of up to one-third.

ExxonMobil has tested CCS and participated in several CO2 injection projects for about 30 years. Last year it captured 6.9 million metric tons of CO2 for sequestration, which is the equivalent of eliminating the annual greenhouse gas emissions of more than one million passenger vehicles. In 2008 it committed more than $100 million to improve gas treatment technology to make CCS more viable — and affordable (see Daily GPI,May 6, 2008). That program, using its proprietary Controlled Freeze Zone technology, is one of the company’s many R&D projects, Swarup said.

“We are continually researching technologies that have an ability to reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” he said. “Most solutions that can make an impact of the scale that is required are not found overnight. Our research with FuelCell Energy will be conducted methodically to ensure that all paths toward viability are explored.”

CEO Rex Tillerson is not one to fund ventures that don’t make money for shareholders. Last year during the company’s annual shareholder meeting, he derided renewable energy technologies, which he said so far have failed to make money (see Daily GPI,May 28, 2015).

It’s going to be an “extraordinary challenge,” Tillerson said then, to meet the world’s energy demands over the next several decades, “an important piece of which will be oil and natural gas, whether people like it or not. As to investment in renewables, quite frankly…we choose not to lose money on purpose.” The CEO said it was not true that alternatives such as solar power were making any money. The “only way” alternative energies “survive is on the back of enormous government mandates and subsidies, which are not sustainable. We choose not to invest in businesses that require government mandates and subsidies for them to exist…”