West Virginia University researchers have taken the initial steps toward creating technology that can absorb carbon dioxide in the air and use it for environmentally friendly methanol production. The technique that they have begun modeling, which includes extracting air from buildings, can potentially enhance the sustainable supply of methanol, one of the world’s most widely used raw materials, while also eliminating a planet-warming greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.
Methanol is typically made from fossil fuels such as shale gas. However, Liu and his colleagues believe they have discovered a way to eliminate harmful emissions from the manufacturing process by harvesting the carbon required to synthesize methanol from the air of buildings such as large apartments or office complexes.
Methanol, or wood alcohol, has so many applications—it is one of the most common chemicals in the world. It can be used by itself or as a feedstock for making other products, such as paint, primer or insulation.
Xingbo Liu, Study Lead and Associate Dean, Research, Statler Chair of Engineering, Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, West Virginia University
The Phase I project is financed by a $400,000 grant from the US Department of Energy.
The proposed methanol production system would connect directly to current rooftop HVAC units often found on business and residential buildings. The technology can remove carbon from the air sucked out of the building by its heating and cooling systems.
The device can also produce its own carbon-free hydrogen by powering solid oxide electrolysis cells, which can split water into oxygen and hydrogen, with a rooftop solar panel or another renewable energy source.
A catalyst could instantly mix the difficult-to-transport carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen gases and convert them to liquid methanol. The methanol can then be pumped from the building’s top or side into a tanker truck.
The research was led by Srinivas Palanki, professor and chair of the Statler College Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, and Debangsu Bhattacharyya, GE Plastics professor, in partnership with industry partners OxEon Energy, Tennessee Valley Authority, and Tallgrass.
Edgar Lara-Curzio, Hai-Ying Chen, Michelle Kidder, and Kashif Nawaz are researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a government energy research center that collaborates with the University on ongoing decarbonization projects.
Methanol, which is currently in great demand, has space to expand in new areas, according to Liu.
Liu added, “Methanol also has the potential to be useful in transportation. Now when you go to the gas pumps, you often have the option for ‘flexible fuel,’ which is gasoline mixed with ethanol. Well, you can do something very similar with methanol, replacing the ethanol in a gasoline blend.”
Liu noted the process’s low cost and efficiency, noting that it not only harvests carbon from the air but also takes the heat it requires to function from the HVAC unit to which it is connected.
“If you have an air conditioning system that is located on the ground outside your building, you stay away from it in summer because it is so hot, right? Really, they provide cold air in the building by making more hot air outside, through waste heat. So now we can use that to our advantage, because the system we are developing needs that heat,” Liu added.
“Point source capture,” the most mature existing technology for extracting carbon from the atmosphere, is only practicable for “huge facilities like coal or natural gas power plants, which release lots of carbon dioxide every hour of every day,” according to Liu.
The approach he will be looking at, “direct air capture,” is not a rival to point source capture. It has been scaled down to cope with the amount of carbon released by rooftop HVAC units like the ones found in the WVU Engineering Sciences Building.
Liu estimates the system his team is developing to have considerably reduced financial, operational, and maintenance barriers to deployment compared to existing direct air capture methods.
Liu further stated, “We are working toward a highly integrated and optimized process with state-of-the-art technologies for direct air capture, electrolysis and methanol synthesis that will lead to cost-efficient production of green methanol that is more than 99.7% pure.”
He concluded, “We hope to bring down the cost of technology for carbon dioxide reduction and provide a carbon-neutral solution for producing this common chemical, maximizing the use of captured carbon dioxide and minimizing the environmental footprint.”