Thermodynamic analysis of a direct air carbon capture plant with directions for energy efficiency improvements
Ryan M Long-Innes
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies play a significant role in deep mitigation pathways to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. As a result, interest in them is becoming increasingly prevalent, the most widely discussed being Direct Air Capture (DAC), or active removal of carbon dioxide from atmospheric air. While DAC processes have indeed been successfully tested, one of the most prominent being that developed by Canadian company Carbon Engineering, their widespread deployment faces significant headwinds due to prohibitively high energy consumption and its associated costs. Before DAC can be considered to exist in a state of technological readiness, reductions to the installations' energy demand must be realized. This thesis analyzes the thermodynamic behavior of Carbon Engineering's proposed 1 Mt-CO2/year natural gas fuelled DAC plant, which they describe as “a low-risk starting point rather than a fully optimized least-cost design” [Keith et al., Joule 2, 1573], with the aim to illustrate key areas to which energy efficiency improvement measures must target. With an understanding built of the mechanisms by which energy is utilized and irreversibly lost within their plant, suggestions are put forth for directions to pursue for process improvements, with further analysis included on potential alternative plant configurations which would reduce overall heat and power consumption. A thermodynamic work loss analysis is performed on their plant design at a system level, which finds 92.2% of incoming exergy being lost to thermodynamic irreversibilities. A component-level analysis is then performed to detail the mechanisms by which these losses occur in the most energy-intensive plant segments, namely, the calciner and preheat cyclones, air separation unit, water knockout system, CO2 compression system, and power island. The dissipation of chemical exergy in the air contactor component, i.e., the release of stored chemical exergy as low-grade heat to the environment due to the exothermic reaction of CO2 and aqueous KOH, was determined as the largest unavoidable source of work loss. The most avoidable losses were found to be associated with use of natural gas as a feedstock for heat and power, namely, through its introduction of additional CO2 and water to be processed within the plant, and due to gas turbine power production's inherent Carnot efficiency limits. Additional analysis and discussion follows regarding possible loss reduction measures and modifications, the key concept presented being the use of renewable energy to provide plant power, combined with a calciner using electric resistance heating to meet its reduced thermal demand. Use of a readily-available high-temperature heat source for calciner heat is also considered, with thorough description included of its thermodynamic advantages. Finally, the all-electric plant concept is analyzed at a system level, and its advantages compared to the original natural gas fuelled case.