Retired rocket scientists have pollution-free answer to California's power crisis

Feb 12, 2001 01:00 AM

A group of retired rocket scientists says it has a pollution-free answer to California's power emergency, and at least one major government laboratory is listening. With cheap, clean electricity as their goal, the researchers have developed a subscale steam-generated system fired by oxygen and fossil fuel and free of emissions or pollutants. The prototype, which generates 75 kW of electricity, has performed so successfully in initial tests, the technology has caught the eye of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Officials there are seeking approval to build a research facility to house a larger, 10-MW version of the model and use its power. "We'll not only solve California's energy crisis, we'll provide the world with low-cost energy that does not pollute the atmosphere," Steve Doyle, president and CEO of Clean Energy Systems of Sacramento, California, said. "Our goal is to become the most efficient producer of electricity in the country and to do that with zero emission," said Doyle, at 65the youngest of the seven former employees of rocket maker Aerojet who founded CES in 1996.
Having proven the principle of the concept in preliminary tests at the University of California, Davis, CES has been awarded $ 1.8 mm by the Department of Energy and has pumped in $.8 mm of its own to build and test a 10-MW version. Trials of the larger model are planned for the end of the year at the Aerojet facility in Rancho Cordova, California.
"When we demonstrate the production-size model works as we said it would, we'll be ready to enter contracts to build power plants," Doyle said. Making inexpensive, clean electricity from traditionally dirty fossil fuels is an obtainable goal, he said.

The Livermore lab will formally ask the DOE to include in its 2003 budget monies for the construction of a facility to house one of the innovative generators. "When it's up and running, we get the benefit of having 10 MW of electricity we can use at the lab," which typically needs 53 MW for its operations and 8,000-person staff, said Ray Smith, lead researcher on the Zero Emission Steam Technology project at Livermore.
"This country gets 85 % of its energy from fossil fuels. We need to find ways to do it in an acceptable fashion," he said. "The technology replaces six-story high steam boilers and represents a whole new approach to producing steam and electricity cleanly."
Ideally, ground on the facility would be broken in 2004, industrial partners would be on board two years later and electricity would start flowing into the main power grid for California, and perhaps elsewhere as well, by 2008 or 2010, Smith said.
Eventually, the technology could be incorporated into building new power plants as well as in retrofitting some existing ones, he said. He hopes the crisis in power-depleted California will better position the project for receiving funds and favourable reviews.

In an 11th hour strategy to salvage the nearly bankrupt utilities and keep the lights on in California, lawmakers passed a controversial $ 10 bn plan to allow the state to buy power through long-term contracts. While diffusing the current emergency, all sides agreed it was but a first step with a final solution a long ways off.
An answer could be the clean-burning energy system which generates electricity without causing carbon dioxide pollution, said Harry Brandt, CES chairman of the board and emeritus professor at UC Davis. The system -- based on rocket technology the scientists developed at Aerojet starting in the 1960s -- burns methane gas, oxygen and water at about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, scientists said.
The generator burns fuel, such as natural gas, in pure oxygen instead of air, said Ian Kennedy, a combustion specialist at UC Davis. As a result, the exhaust contains water as steam, pure carbon dioxide and no nitrogen compounds or other contaminants.
The steam can be used to drive a turbine and generate electricity while the carbon dioxide -- a gas blamed for global warming -- can be recovered and used for industrial processes, such as putting the fizz in soda pop, oil extraction, recovery of natural gas trapped in coal beds or simply stored rather than being released into the atmosphere, Kennedy said.
While users of the generator would have to pay for methane gas and oxygen, which cost about the same as other fuel sources like common heating oil, the benefits would include greater power generation and less pollution cleanup than needed when using traditional fuels.
"I think this concept represents one of the most significant potentials that we've reviewed," Smith said. "It's sort of a way to have your cake and eat it too. We can continue to use fossil fuels without fouling our nest." "I believe by 2020 we could have pretty significant penetration of the California energy market with this technology. The major challenges are time and money." And tremendous competition.

Since the last energy crunch in the 1970s, large corporations and small-scale entrepreneurs have worked feverishly on such alternative energy producers as windmills and solar panels. "There's a whole slew of new technologies that have lower emissions that conventional technologies," said Doug Herman, manager of distributive generation technology at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California. "It's an enormous challenge that takes hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars and many, many years to bring a new power generation technology into the market place," he said.
While they expect initial resistance to their idea, as happens with most innovations, Doyle and team are confident they have the staying power to overcome the challenge. After all, all but one of the original seven remain on the company's board of directors. The exception is the late Rudi Beichel, who helped Germany develop the V-2 rocket during World War II and was instrumental in designing the Jupiter rocket in the United States.
"You have a group of men who were retired with resources to live comfortably the rest of their lives but who chose to come away from the retirement, the comfort and the golf to make a new technology available to the world because they think it's important," Doyle said. "At a time when most people are sitting down getting ready to cash in, we're just coming up to one of the most exciting challenges in our collective life, and I think we're going to meet it."

Source: United Press International
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