Published: 12 July 2016

The cleaner way to use fossil fuels

Researchers at Surrey have found a new way of capturing carbon – enabling over 90 per cent of CO2 to be safely contained or reused.

With renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind power not yet offering a viable, universal solution to our energy needs – and 80 per cent of the UK’s energy still coming from fossil fuels – there is an urgent need to find cleaner ways of using these fuels.

A research project led by Professor Sai Gu, Head of Surrey’s Department of Chemical and Process Engineering, is aimed at optimising the capture of carbon which can then be safely locked underground or used in petrochemical products.

The project, which has been funded with a £600k grant by EPSRC (the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) and conducted in collaboration with industrial partners, focuses on optimising the ‘structure packing columns’ used within carbon capture reactors to absorb CO2. The research team has developed advanced computational models to examine, at micro level, the interaction between the CO2 and the solvents used to capture the carbon. This is providing data to enable the design of the columns to be optimised, drastically reducing energy consumption for carbon capture reactors.

Leading on from this research, Professor Gu and his team are also working on a possible solution to the corrosion which happens when solvents (which are amine-based) come into contact with the metal plates of the structure packing columns. They have developed capsules to transport the solvent (similar to the capsule technology used in the pharmaceutical industry), which allow CO2 gases to permeate while locking in the liquids – thereby resolving the corrosion problem.

Professor Gu says, “This is a real breakthrough because it increases the surface area of CO2 which can be reached by the solvent up to a hundred times. The big challenge now is mass production. We will be working with partners in industry and academia to identify the methods needed to skill up the manufacturing process.

“Combined with our computational modelling work to optimise the design of carbon capture reactors, this research could make it possible to capture carbon efficiently on a very large scale. This would enable us to use fossil fuels in a cleaner way, providing a useful transition step before other energies such as renewables become a more viable option.”

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