• Combustion Industry News

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      Patrick Lavery

      Combustion Industry News Editor

Siberian craters point to methane release from permafrost

In combustion news of an uncontrolled and alarming nature, Russian scientists have learned via satellite imagery and reports from reindeer herdsmen of a further four large craters in Arctic Siberia, following the discovery of three last year by a helicopter pilot. The craters are believed to be caused by the explosion of trapped methane gas released from methane hydrate crystals frozen in the permafrost and warmed during irregularly warm Siberian weather over the last year. Some geologic fault lines may also have contributed to the excitation of the hydrate crystals. The gas is believed to accumulate in cavities formed by the melting of ice, exploding when concentrations of methane reach between 5-16%. The phenomenon of methane release is one that had been predicted to occur by some climate scientists, in a scenario where the gas would contribute to climate change which would in turn release more gas from the permafrost – a dangerous feedback loop that would be difficult to control and which would undermine other efforts to dampen global greenhouse gas emissions. Professor Vasily Bogoyavlensky of the Oil and Gas Research Institute, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, speculates that there may be 20 or 30 large craters, using a mushroom analogy that if one is found, there are usually others around. Some of the large craters (tens of metres in diameter) have been found through satellite imagery to have smaller craters (of 2 m diameter) ringing them. Residents in the sparsely populated area have reported seeing some lights in the area which may correspond to methane explosions; there have also been reports of tremors, though the nearest seismic station is too far away to detect them. While the news is alarming in terms of the global climate change problem, it also presents a local safety concern for residents and a particular danger for scientists wishing to investigate the craters, with the possibility of future explosions. Some of the craters have already turned into lakes, and methane gas has been observed bubbling up through the water and dispersing into the atmosphere. Some of the pictures that go along with the Siberia Times article are truly astonishing. There are plans to introduce four seismic stations in the area to identify when a new explosion occurs. It should be noted that further investigation by scientists is required.

US Democrat Senator introduces bill designed to support future of US coal industry

US federal Democrat Senator Heidi Heitkamp is to reintroduce into the Senate a proposed law designed to support the future of the US coal industry. Its thrust is to give tax credits for power plants that store carbon dioxide and support a market for the sale of CO2 for enhanced oil recovery, as well as to provide low cost loans for coal-fired power plants. The total package would be worth $US 10.23 billion (€9.33 billion) up until 2036. A similar bill was defeated last year by the Senate finance committee, and while this bill may have a better chance of progressing further, it may be opposed by the White House.

China’s need for CCS highlighted by increased coal firing for power generation

An article by the Norway-based environmental watchdog organisation Bellona has underlined the need for carbon capture and storage technology by looking at the increased use of coal-firing for power generation in China over the last year. While overall coal use in China fell by around 2.5% in 2014, the fall was due to a reduction of activity in non-power generation industries that use coal (steel, cement). While China is lauded for its expansion of its renewables sector, the total additional coal-fired capacity in the country far exceeded the total additional renewables generation capacity. According to Bellona, the share of coal in China’s energy sector is in fact increasing. Therefore, to meet CO2 reduction targets, CCS technology will be vital (not just in China but around the world). Bellona notes that last year’s agreement between China and the US to collaborate on a CCS project in China to recover groundwater (a novel use of CCS) shows promise that cost-effective CCS technology may be developed.

University of Alabama researchers move towards more efficient CO2 scrubbing

Researchers at the University of Alabama have been working on a means to make CO2 capture more energy efficient. One of the more common means of scrubbing CO2 out of flue gas streams is through the use of monoethanolamine (MEA) in aqueous solutions. Chief drawbacks are the energy penalty for a power plant in regenerating the solvent, and the corrosiveness of the MEA solution to process unit materials. Dr. Jason E. Bara and his team have been developing means of capture using chemical solvents for the MEA to replace water, reducing the energy required to regenerate the MEA solution because of the lower heat capacity of the solvents in comparison to water. Research to date has shown this alternative solvent to provide just as much capture efficiency as when water is the solvent. The University has licenced a patent for the technology and the licensee, ION Engineering (co-founded by Dr Bara), is beginning trials at commercial-scale power plants.

Holcim-Lafarge merger progressing but still has significant ground to go

An article in the Financial Times has looked at the potential merger between cement giants Holcim and Lafarge. In December last year, the European Commission’s competition authority agreed to allow the deal without asking for a second-stage investigation, which the FT views as the result of good lobbying on part of the two companies, seeing as though the cement industry had been under investigation by the EC since 2008 for price fixing and cartel behaviour. But European approval is only one of the several needed, with authorities in the US, India and Canada just some of the others having to give their approval. In addition, part of the manoeuvrings of the merger would involve Irish cement group CRH buying many of the European assets of the two companies, and shareholders of Lafarge and Holcim are not convinced the price is right. Meanwhile, the unpegging of the Swiss Franc from the Euro has meant that Holcim is now a more valuable company on paper compared to Lafarge, which tips the balance of the deal and may lead to some renegotiation between the companies, though to date both companies have signalled no intention to do so. Overall, progress on the merger has been unexpectedly easy, though there is a significant way to go.

Saudi Aramco pushing shale gas extraction and refining projects

Saudi Arabia’s stated-owned utility, Saudi Aramco, has again extended the timeframe for companies to bid on a project, System A, to develop a shale gas sector in the country’s north.  The project will involve gas wellheads and processing facilities, as well as a pipeline to deliver gas to a mining project known as Waad al-Shamal in the town of Turaif. The deadline is now March 15. System A has a counterpart project, System B, around five times the size according to Reuters, for which companies have already been pre-qualified. Saudi Aramco has invested $US 3 billion (€2.7 billion) in unconventional gas sources and will invest a further $US 7 billion (€6.4 billion) as the country attempts to catch up to the US shale gas sector while meeting its rising domestic gas demand (set to double from 2011 levels by 2030). Aramco’s chief executive Khalid al-Falih told a press conference in January that “Saudi Arabia will be the next frontier after the U.S., where shale and unconventional will make a significant contribution to our energy mix, especially gas.” Saudi Arabia is estimated to have twice as many unconventional gas reserves as conventional.

Duke Energy to pay $102 million in fines for coal ash spill and mismanagement

US utility Duke Energy is to pay around $US 102 million (€93 million) in fines relating to a spill of coal ash from its Dan River power plant into the Dan River in North Carolina last year. The company violated the Clean Water Act through the spill, and was subsequently found to have insufficient management processes in place for other of its coal ash basins at three other power plants, leading to further violations. In addition to the fine, Duke Energy will also be made to enter a five-year probationary period under which it will be forced to establish environmental compliance plans under the supervision of a court-appointed monitor, with Duke having to maintain a $US 500 million (€456 million) security deposit for the period. The Dan River spill, caused by a pipe break, was the third-worst spill in US history.

Thailand’s Ratchaburi investing in Myanmar

Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding Plc, the Thai utility, has announced that it will invest 13 billion baht ($US 401 million/€365 million) this year to expand its business, part of its $US 1.5 billion strategy to increase its capacity generation by 9,700 MW by 2023 (a 47% increase). As Chief Executive Officer Pongdith Potchana explained in late February, one of the company’s chief focuses is expansion in Myanmar, with the building of a 2,640-MW coal-fired power plant in Myeik to be agreed with the Burmese government in November this year, and a study of an LNG plant in Myanmar currently underway. Ratchaburi is 45% owned by state-owned Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.