Researchers Make Progress on Several Power Projects

Researchers at a few prominent universities have published findings on recent power-related projects. At Cranfield University in the UK, hydrogen production technology is advancing with an eye on cost and carbon reductions; researchers at the University of Michigan released best practices for extending lithium-ion battery life; and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study found significant benefits could be achieved through a two-way power trading scheme between the U.S. Northeast and Quebec.

Low-Carbon Hydrogen Technology

An international collaboration led by the UK’s Cranfield University is working to make hydrogen “the clean fuel of the future.” The project, known as HyPER, will utilize a state-of-the-art 1.5-MWth pilot plant at Cranfield University to test an innovative hydrogen production technology, using sorbent enhanced steam reforming. U.S.-based research and development (R&D) organization Gas Technology Institute (GTI), which invented the production technology, and Doosan Babcock are also involved in the project. The UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Energy Innovation Programme provided £7.5 million ($9.675 million) in funding for the project.

“Hydrogen offers the opportunity of a cleaner, greener fuel for heating our homes and getting us from A to B. The innovative project from Cranfield University, GTI and Doosan Babcock is a clear step in that direction—particularly in this year of climate action,” Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth Kwasi Kwarteng said in a statement.

The demand for low-carbon hydrogen is expected to increase significantly in the future, as it is used to decarbonize the gas grid, industry, power generation, and transportation. GTI’s hydrogen production technology inherently captures carbon dioxide during the hydrogen production process and shifts the chemical reactions to favor the production of more hydrogen. The outputs are high-purity streams of hydrogen and carbon dioxide, which can be stored, sold, or transported to where it is needed. A key benefit of the new process is that it could be more economical and efficient than other technologies because the product streams are pressurized.

The process will use natural gas for the direct production of hydrogen. The plant is compact, yet scalable to very large capacities, according to the university. It has the potential to produce high-purity hydrogen at up to 30% lower cost than conventional steam methane reforming methods that require CO2 capture as an additional expensive process step. Conventional technology is also limited in the portion of CO2 emissions that can actually be avoided with reasonable economics, the researchers said.

Having completed a successful first phase, the pilot plant is expected to be operational in 2021. Dr. Peter Clough, lecturer in Energy Engineering at Cranfield University, said, “The pilot plant will be a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate the scale-up of the technology and process, and to offer a unique teaching and research facility for students at Cranfield University.”

“The Phase one work showed that the technology has great market potential and makes economic sense. Moving the technology forward will minimize greenhouse gas emissions, and we anticipate great benefits for consumers, industry, and the hydrogen sector,” said Mike Rutkowski, senior vice president of Research and Technology Development with GTI.

Minimizing Li-Ion Battery Degradation

Researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) published findings in the Journal of Energy Storage on best practices for extending the life of lithium-ion batteries and minimizing battery degradation. The work was supported by the Responsible Battery Coalition, a coalition of companies, academics, and organizations committed to the responsible management of batteries.

The relationship between battery operation and their degradation and service life is complex. Battery degradation causes premature replacement or product retirement, resulting in environmental burdens from producing and processing new battery materials, as well as early end-of-life burdens. It also imposes a significant cost on users, as batteries can account for more than 50% of the cost of some products.

Many of the recommended practices discovered by the U-M research team are related to three main variables that impact battery health: temperature, state of charge, and current. Specific recommendations in the findings include:

  • Avoiding temperature extremes, both high and low, when using or storing lithium-ion batteries, with specific recommendations of keeping batteries out of direct sunlight and maintaining them in shaded or cool locations.
  • Minimizing the amount of time a battery spends at either 100% or 0% charge, as both extremely high and low states of charge stress batteries.
  • Avoiding fast-chargers, that, while convenient, also degrade lithium-ion batteries more quickly than standard charging.

“By minimizing exposure to the conditions that accelerate degradation, batteries can last longer. And this has a positive environmental impact, as battery production is a source of greenhouse gas emissions and many other pollutants,” said the study’s corresponding author, Greg Keoleian, director of the U-M Center for Sustainable Systems at the School for Environment and Sustainability.

“As the nation and world shift to economies powered by batteries, it is paramount as responsible stewards of the environment that we extend the life of all types of batteries,” said Steve Christensen, executive director of the Responsible Battery Coalition.

Storing Energy in Hydro Dams

A recent study conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers found states in the Northeastern U.S. can transition to low-carbon electricity at a lower cost by using hydropower reservoirs in Quebec for energy storage. Countering conventional wisdom, the study argues that Quebec’s hydropower reservoirs are best utilized by Northeastern states as a virtual energy storage resource rather than as a continuous source of energy.

The concept is not new. Speaking at the BloombergNEF Summit in New York last March, Eric Martel, president and CEO of Hydro-Quebec, said, “Our water reservoir[s] are our batteries.” Hydro-Quebec operates about 60 hydroelectric generating stations. Martel said the company’s reservoirs are so large that the utility “can store 175 TWh, which is more than enough to provide the whole electricity for the New York state for a year and a half almost.”

As U.S. states commit to 100% clean electricity or net-zero emissions, power generation will increasingly rely on renewable technologies such as wind and solar photovoltaic. Because these technologies are intermittent and cannot be dispatched as needed, they require a backup source to ensure the stability of the electricity system across hours, days, and seasons.

The MIT study found that in a low-carbon future, the value of Quebec hydropower is maximized when used to balance and store renewable electricity generated from variable U.S. wind and solar resources. However, the current cross-border transmission system is not optimized for this purpose. The researchers said to better utilize hydroelectric generation and transmission assets, there must be a shift away from one-way electricity exports from Canada to the U.S. toward two-way trading of electricity. Existing constraints in cross-border transmission capacity must also be eliminated.

The research shows that two-way trading between the U.S. Northeast and Quebec can help reduce overall power system costs, decrease dependence on natural gas in the U.S., and lower the need for carbon capture and sequestration in a decarbonized electricity system. The authors estimate that the addition of 4 GW of new transmission between New England and Quebec would lower the costs of a zero-carbon electricity system in these regions by 17% to 28%. The study also found that the existing hydropower resource is sufficient to provide these balancing services to the Northeast without necessitating new hydropower reservoirs.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).

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