Democratizing Fossil Fuel Conversion

Developed by: AIChE
  • Type:
    Conference Presentation
  • Conference Type:
    AIChE Annual Meeting
  • Presentation Date:
    November 10, 2015
  • Duration:
    30 minutes
  • Skill Level:
  • PDHs:

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Do you have a billion dollars? Neither do most of the 6 million companies in the Unites States. In fact, less than 10 companies in the U.S. can reasonably finance a billion dollar investment on their own. Whether you are using coal or natural gas to make electricity or chemicals, today economic production is achieved through “economies of scale” where huge upfront capital investments are required—on the order of a billion dollars or more. This high price of entry is a financial barrier that stifles all but the most incremental technological advancements. In this talk, the long-held belief in “scale-up” to achieve economic production will be challenged and “economies of number” will be proposed as an alternative to achieve cost-reductions through the manufacturing of many small, mass-produced modules. A multitude of advantages are offered by small-scale, modular plants over traditional scaled-up, including: 1) less upfront capital, no down time, and less risk; 2) faster market response and adaptable output; 3) the creation deployable assets (no sunk capital); 4) access to remote resources/assets; 5) better integration resulting in less waste; 6) access to new capital resources and consumer markets; and 7) faster innovation through more players and a lower barrier to experimentation. However, simply reducing the size of an existing process alone will not be sufficient to realize the benefits of mass production—innovations are required. Fundamentally, there a two key technical challenges to operating processes at small-scale: 1) high surface-to-volume ratio prevents near-adiabatic operation, and 2) common gravity-based processes (separations) may not yield sufficient residence times. These challenges and overall production efficiency will require innovations in process intensification that dramatically reduce the process volume, capital, and/or environmental footprint per rate of production. Recent advances, emerging opportunities, and challenges ahead in process intensification for fossil fuel conversion will be presented.

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