NASA Spinoff

Rocket Engine Innovations Advance Clean Energy

“The modeling and analysis required to understand high heat loads for rocket engines is something that we have directly applied to the gasifier. Others in the field don’t have that expertise, so they have been reluctant to go to the higher efficiencies because they can’t handle the temperatures,” says Stevenson.

In addition to the smaller size, another advantage of PWR’s system is lower costs, compared to the prevailing gasifier technology. According to the company, the capital cost to build a commercial-scale compact gasification plant using PWR’s technology is estimated to be 10–20 percent less than conventional gasification plants. Another main advantage is that the system is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 10 percent, compared to standard gasification technologies—which are already the cleanest coal-based power systems available. For each commercial system deployed, it is equivalent to removing 50,000 cars from road.

These advancements hold real promise for the energy and chemical processing industries. According to the Gasification Technologies Council, worldwide gasification capacity is projected to grow 70 percent by 2015, with 80 percent of the growth occurring in Asia. In fact, PWR has already granted a license to Zero Emission Energy Plants, Inc. (ZEEP) of Katy, Texas, for commercial implementation of the compact gasifier system. “ZEEP has a unique energy plant concept, and they want to make our technology a centerpiece. They were willing to come in with an early license, and that provided some additional financial resources to support the development,” says Stevenson.

altIn the future, PWR expects to license the technology to various national and international entities such as oil refineries, electric power, liquid fuels, and chemical plants. The next step in the commercialization efforts is to demonstrate the gasifier at a commercial scale over a long period of time. To this end, PWR is beginning to work with partners to build a commercial-scale plant in either Asia or North America.

Perhaps the greatest benefits of using more efficient, cost-effective gasifiers to produce electricity, however, will be for the environment. As Stevenson says, “One of the industry’s challenges has been how to continue to use coal in an environmentally friendly way. Once gasification can be brought in as a cost-effective mechanism for a means to producing electricity, we can replace coal-fired power plants and make a huge improvement on the global emissions problem.”

While the demand for energy continues to rise, coal continues to be a major source of energy, so Stevenson finds gasification of coal offers the opportunity to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. By using a gasifier, the carbon dioxide can be captured much more efficiently. “Extensive research is being conducted in North America, Asia, and Europe to pump captured carbon dioxide underground and store it or use it to enhance oil recovery. There are some major pilot projects taking place to prove the technology for carbon sequestration, which will ultimately be the key enabler for near-zero emissions from these types of facilities,” he says.

Stevenson suggests this type of innovation, similar to the innovation required to build the SSMEs, is what will help to meet the world’s energy and environmental goals.