14 August 2012

Recycling Carbon Dioxide in Iceland

Today, I went on a tour of the Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant near Grindavik, Iceland (pictured above). During the visit I learned that the facility produces >300 megawatts of electricity plus hot water for the region (or about 1/3 of a conventional nuclear power plant). Of particular note is that the plant facility is also home to Carbon Recycling International, a joint US-Iceland company that is actually turning carbon dioxide into liquid methanol fuel.

Our host at the power plant explained to us:
"We don't see carbon dioxide as a pollution stream, we see it as a resource."
The use of methanol as a fuel additive in Iceland is limited by regulations, however, the Svartsengi production has potential to increase dramatically and a second plant further north is in the works. Presently, only 10% of the carbon dioxide released by the Svartsengi power plant is used by the co-located methanol facility.

According to a recent news article:
Benedikt Stefánsson, Manager of Business Development at Carbon Recycling International (CRI) which operates the only methanol plant in the country at Svartsengi in Grindavík, says present regulations do not assume higher than 3% methanol mixed with gasoline. Iceland, however, is committed to increasing the country's fuel consumption coming from renewable fuels to 10% by the year 2020. Changes are being made in this regard and Benedikt is hopeful these changes will be a step in the right direction. It is possible to produce 5 million liters of methanol in the Svartsengi plant. 
´´We have also been exploring the possibility of producing 40 to 80 million liters from waste [CO2],'' he says. "Additionally, it´s possible to produce much more with electricity. Indeed, there are already projects in place in the energy sector which could allow us to produce fuel to meet the total demand.´´ The fuel consumption of the entire car population is around 350 million liters annually.
The power plant official we spoke with even spoke of an export market for Iceland for methanol. What seems clear is that energy innovation is moving ahead on many fronts, many of which are quietly out of sight, unless you are looking. In Iceland, carbon capture and "recycling" is now taking place. Can it be done at larger scale at economic returns? It bears watching.


  1. "What seems clear is that energy innovation is moving ahead on many fronts, many of which are quietly out of sight, unless you are looking."

    Yes...almost every conceivable idea is being tried by someone somewhere.

  2. Roger, if the Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant is Geothermal, where is the CO2 coming from that they're using for the process?

    Also, this raises the question of: what is the net carbon emission results from this? If they're capturing CO2, they're going to be lowering the overall efficiency of the power plant to produce a carbon-based fuel. So this raises the question as to whether or not this process is less carbon intensive than traditional oil refining if they have to makeup for the loss of efficiency.

    Perhaps I just need to look into the process, but I don't have the time right now

  3. -2-Jeff

    The CO2 is a byproduct of the geothermal energy production, along with electricity and hot water. CRI is co-located and purchases both electricity and CO2, so there is no efficiency loss. Have a look at the CRI website linked above for details. Thanks!

  4. If you look at the web site, what they are doing is using electrolysis to split water into hydrogen an oxygen then using the hydrogen feedstock to reduce co2 to methanol by a thermal catalytic process. I guess the economics makes sense if you have a lot of excess power and heat that you can tap into but most commercial processes for making H2 start with natural gas. I also wonder if this is a load leveling activity. Steam based power generation systems seem to have optimum conditions that they run at and they have relative long start up and shut down sequences. The daily demand cycle around human activity has big plateaus and valleys. The hydrogen reduction may just be a way to due excess power from the plant when demand is low.

  5. It's been a while since I took chemistry, but:

    2 CH3OH + 3 O2 → 2 CO2 + 4 H2O

    So during combustion of methanol, the same two carbon atoms in the methanol are used in the conversion of two molecules of CO2. And this is a good thing?

  6. -5-Mark B.

    Thanks ... I think that the answer is that you get electricity+liquid fuel for the same CO2 as just the electricity (hence it is called recycling) ... there is also the potential that such technology may advance techniques of carbon capture more generally.

    That it is economically viable is perhaps most interesting. Thanks.

  7. I hate to be cynical, but this smacks of perpetual motion. It takes more energy to synthesize methanol than can be extracted from its combustion. See second law of thermodynamics.

    I can't see this being economical unless there are some serious subsidies in place.

  8. I hate to be cynical, but this smacks of perpetual motion. It takes more energy to synthesize methanol than can be extracted from its combustion/

    I think the Icelanders know what they are doing.

    There is a serious amount of spare heat going around in a geothermal plant. That energy can be used to drive the combustion of methanol backwards.

    So yes, it takes more energy to create the methanol than it gives out when burnt. But it is energy currently going entirely to waste.

    It takes more energy to gasify water and have it rain upland than you get via hydro dams, but that doesn't mean getting electricity from dams violates any laws of physics.

    It's been a while since I took chemistry, but:

    2 CH3OH + 3 O2 → 2 CO2 + 4 H2O

    They are doing it the other way round. Put in CO2 and get out methanol. As it happens they crack the water first, but the essence is the same.

    2CO2 + 4H2 → 2CH3OH + O2

    It is endothermic, but the large reduction in the number of gas atoms on the right means it will be driven at high pressures.

  9. Ahem. Synthesizing methanol from its combustion products takes precisely the same amount of energy as that released as heat by burning it. That's the First Law.

    Energywise, this is an extremely wasteful process. When you use heat to produce electricity, you waste a large fraction (usually of the order of 70%), due to the Second Law. The wasted energy is not destroyed, it's dumped into a thermal sink at a lower temperature.

    There are some practical losses in reducing CO2 to CH3OH, but no necessary thermodynamic losses. However, when you combust CH3OH in a car engine, you again have Second Law losses of the order of 70%. So even without engineering inefficiencies, you expect unavoidable losses in going from geothermal heat, to the mechanic work of moving a car, to exceed 90%.

    There is also going to be a big loss in taking the CO2 from a dilute state to a state concentrated and pressurized enough to use. This would be less the case if they used flue gases, than if they use atmospheric CO2. The thermodynamics of atmospheric carbon capture are truly depressing.

    At the same time, as Mark pointed out, if the heat is going to be a wasted anyway, this is not such a big deal. Better to use 5% of it than 0%.

  10. By the way, this is not the correct reaction

    2CO2 + 4H2 → 2CH3OH + O2

    The correct reaction is

    2CO2 + 6H2 → 2CH3OH + 2H2O

    And it's quite exothermic.

  11. All, I did not ask, but I did get the impression that energy supply limitations were not an issue facing the power plant, given where it comes from ;-)

  12. This is an interesting application indeed.

    But a quick check of the numbers - wholesale rate for bulk CO2, facility capacity, wholesale rate for methanol, the investment to develop facility, etc, - suggests that this is not even close to viable. Roger's comment #11 notwithstanding - both CO2 and electricity have a cost even for the producer.

    The company seems to acknowledge this problem on their website, "[The facility's] purpose is to improve plant economics for building larger plants.

    One wonders, do they intend to make up the losses on volume?

  13. You don't have to burn the methanol in an engine. It can go in a fuel cell at a much higher efficiency, which would be useful for local electricity generation too. Carbon capture does not seem to be the rationale here though, as it will be released again soon enough.