German gas industry has honoured a process developed by researchers from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam that produces hydrogen from natural gas with zero emissions.
Energy from natural gas without climate-damaging CO2 emissions: this is promised by a new technology developed by scientists at the KIT and IASS in Potsdam in a joint research project. The natural gas, which mainly consists of methane, is converted into hydrogen and solid carbon. For their work, the researchers have now received the Innovation Award of the German Gas Industry.
In addition, KIT was successful in winning the first special prize for innovative start-ups: Ineratec, a spin-off from the research university, will be awarded this prize.
“The innovation award of the German gas industry for the new methane decomposition process is proof of the innovative spirit of our scientists,” says the President of KIT, Professor Holger Hanselka, on the occasion of the award ceremony. “The possibility of using fossil natural gas in a climate-friendly way in the future can make a decisive contribution to making our energy system CO2-neutral. I am very pleased that, as the research university in the Helmholtz Association, we can make this important contribution to climate protection together with our partners.”
The prize was awarded to the research team on 22 November in Berlin, which is made up of scientists from KIT and the IASS. The event was under the auspices of the Federal Minister of Education and Research, Anja Karliczek.
“Instead of directly burning the natural gas, which mainly consists of methane, we separate it into the constituents hydrogen and carbon,” says dr. Stefan Stückrad, who led the research project at the IASS. The hydrogen produced in the methane decomposition can be used as an energy carrier in fuel cell vehicles and for the generation of electricity and heat. Also applications in the chemical industry are possible.
“So far, hydrogen for the chemical industry is mostly produced in the steam methane reforming from natural gas. This releases considerable amounts of carbon dioxide,” says Stückrad. In addition to hydrogen, methane cracking gives rise to very pure, pulverulent carbon as a by-product, whose importance as an industrial raw material is steadily increasing. For example, it is used in the production of elastomers, lightweight construction materials, printing inks or even in battery production.
The methane cleavage is not a fundamentally new idea and has previously been experimentally investigated in gas phase reactors. “Conventional methods are unsuitable for industrial scale applications,” says Professor Thomas Wetzel of the Institute for Thermal Process Engineering (TVT) at KIT. “The carbon that accumulates during cracking deposits as a solid layer on the heated reactor walls and thus blocks the reactors in a short time. Other approaches based on arc- and plasma-based reactors have also failed.”
The research project of IASS and KIT has therefore chosen a fundamentally different approach for the continuous pyrolytic cleavage of methane: The basic idea is the use of molten tin as a heat transfer and liquid medium in a bubble column reactor. Here, the KIT scientists contributed their expertise in liquid metal research and technology. In the process, which has now been awarded the Innovation Prize, methane gas is continuously introduced from below into a liquid metal column maintained at up to 1,200 degrees Celsius and rises there as a swarm of bubbles. The gas in the bubbles reaches the reaction temperature very quickly, so that the pyrolysis reaction takes place.
“At the surface of the liquid tin, the bubbles open and release the gaseous hydrogen and the carbon,” says Wetzel. “The carbon accumulates as a microgranular powder, which can be easily separated from the gas stream and handled.”
Here, the KIT scientists contributed their expertise in liquid metal research and technology. In the process, which has now been awarded the Innovation Prize, methane gas is continuously introduced from below into a liquid metal column maintained at up to 1,200 degrees Celsius and rises there as a swarm of bubbles. The gas in the bubbles reaches the reaction temperature very quickly, so that the pyrolysis reaction takes place.
For the first time, the new technology makes continuous operation of a methane-splitting reactor possible. On a laboratory scale, a conversion rate of up to 78 percent has already been demonstrated. Currently, the research groups are working on further optimization and scaling of the process to pilot scale.
The research project on methane dissociation was initiated by the Nobel Prize winner Professor Carlo Rubbia, who is also the former scientific director of the IASS. The project was coordinated in the IASS by Dr. med. Stefan Stückrad and Professor Alberto Abánades. At KIT, researchers from the KarlsruheLiquid Metals Laboratory KALLA, the Institute for High-performance Impulse and Microwave Technology (IHM) and the Institute of Applied Materials (IAM) are active in the project. Professor Thomas Wetzel from the Institute of Thermal Process Engineering (TVT), Dr. Leonid Stoppel (KALLA) and Dr. Alfons Weisenburger (IHM) are coordinating the work.
Special award for INERATEC
The inexpensive production of synthetic fuels from renewable energy sources is also an important building block for energy system transformation. The production of synthetic petrol, kerosene, diesel or natural gas requires huge plants. Ineratec, a spin-off of KIT, builds chemical reactors that are so compact that the fully assembled plant fits into a ship container and can be used anywhere. The young company was awarded the special prize for innovative start-ups at the Innovation Prize of the German Gas Industry 2018.
The Innovation Award of the German Gas Industry
Every two years, the associations of the German gas industry award the Innovation Prize of the German Gas Industry, which is organized by the Association for Economical and Environmentally Friendly Energy Consumption (ASUE). ASUE’s partners in awarding the prize are the German Gas and Water Association (DVGW), the Federal Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW) and the industry initiative Future of Natural Gas. The prizes are awarded in four prize categories, the KIT and IASS project on methane fission was awarded in the “Research & Development” category. INERATEC received the first ever special award for innovative start-ups.