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Cenovus leads fuel-cell carbon capture study as SaskPower project stumbles

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Cenovus leads fuel-cell carbon capture study as SaskPower project stumbles

Cenovus EnergyInc., one of the biggest nonmining producers of oil sands crude inCanada, is studying the use of fuel cells to capture CO2 from gases emittedthrough its production process, even as a project in Saskatchewan that it hasties to is reported to be in trouble.

Calgary, Alberta-based Cenovus is the lead partner in astudy that could see FuelCellEnergy Inc.'s technology used to mitigate CO2 emissions from a 14-MWnatural gas-fired cogeneration facility at the University of Calgary. Cenovus,which burns natural gas to generate steam that is used to produce tar-likebitumen at its oil sands projects, is partnering with the Canadian units ofRoyal Dutch Shell plcand Devon Energy Corp.in funding the preliminary front-end engineering and design, or FEED, for thefuel cell project.

The study with FuelCell will "determine the feasibilityof launching a pilot project that would involve using CO2 captured from a fluestack to generate electricity using Molten Carbonate Fuel Cells," orMCFCs, Cenovus spokeswoman Sonja Franklin said in an email. "MCFCs are anestablished, proven technology for electricity generation, but they have notbeen proven up for commercial application in an oil and gas setting."

In the process being studied, fuel cell power plantsconfigured for carbon capture will utilize natural gas as the fuel source andprocess the flue gas from the natural gas-fired turbine into the fuel cell airsystem, where CO2 is transferred across the fuel cell membrane forconcentration in the fuel exhaust stream during power generation. The efficientCO2 concentration is a side reaction of the standard fuel cell power generationprocess, according to FuelCell. The Connecticut-based company claims thatapproximately 70% of NOx emissions are destroyed in the fuel cellpower-generation process.

The pre-FEED study was launched in 2015 and is in its finalstages, Franklin said. The companies expect to make a decision this fall onmoving forward to a pilot study of the technology.

"If the pilot were successful, our goal would be to usethis technology in our existing and new SAGD [steam-assisted gravity drainage]projects, but it's still far too early to say whether that's feasible or not,"Franklin said. In SAGD projects, pairs of wells are drilled into an oil sandsformation and steam is injected into one to help bitumen to flow out of theother.

Cenovus has a connection to 's Dam carbon-captureproject as the buyer of captured CO2 to force oil out of older wells insouthern Saskatchewan. That project has been mired in controversy over itseffectiveness, andCenovus was reportedly paid C$7 million last year for missed CO2 shipments.Cenovus also uses CO2 piped from a plant in North Dakota to flood its oilfieldsin the region.

The C$1.1 billion Boundary Dam project has been plagued bymultiple shutdowns, missed targets and problems with its core technology,according to a New York Times articlepublished March 29. The project was planned to extend the life of 1970s-eragenerating units that run on coal from adjacent mines for government-ownedSaskPower. The plant uses technology that was developed by Shell forpetrochemical plants.

According to Saskatchewan's opposition New Democratic Party,the government has stonewalled requests for information about the operation ofBoundary Dam. The party's SaskPower critic, Cathy Sproule, said Saskatchewanpaid at least C$17 million in repair costs and lost C$7 million in contractpenalties in 2015 on the Boundary Dam project.

Shell is using a similar process at its Quest Carbon Captureand Storage project that started operations in November 2015. The Anglo-Dutchpetroleum giant is required to share information on the project's design andprocesses as a condition of the C$865 million it received in combined fundingfrom the governments of Alberta and Canada. Quest is designed to capture andstore more than 1 million metric tons per year of CO2, mostly from the company'sScotford refining and upgrading project in the Edmonton area.

Differences in the emissions properties of coal andpetrochemical plants have raised problems with the carbon-capturing process,according to the Times article. Tinyparticles of ash remain in the exhaust of coal plants and contaminate the aminethat is used to grab carbon.

In North Dakota and Montana coalfields that lie adjacent tothose in Saskatchewan, researchers are working on a concept that could cut CO2emissions while generating industrial products at a reasonable price. Thatprocess could helpplant operators in the U.S. cut emissions by 20% if successful.