Features - June 2015

The Infinite Possibilities of Partnership: CCSI, Collaboration, and Carbon Capture

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The whole is the sum of the parts.

There is an old tale of six blind men asked to touch an elephant and identify what object they felt. The first touched the elephant’s ear and concludes that he must be holding a fan. The next rested his hand on a tusk, and swore he was holding a spear. Each man, touching a different part of the beast, could only describe the small part that he felt; until, after much discussion, they were able to conclude that the mysterious object was, in fact, an elephant.

The take away from the story is simple: no single vantage can encapsulate the whole. Collaboration, the mingling of ideas and experiences, is essential to discovery of truth.

This core belief, that multi-disciplinary collaboration can unlock greater potential than any one scientific field alone, has been a guiding principle for the Carbon Capture Simulation Initiative (CCSI) since its inception. CCSI is led by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) and leverages the DOE national laboratories’ core strengths in modeling and simulation. The initiative combines the best capabilities at NETL, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), with the unparalleled expertise in multiphase flow reactors, combustion, process synthesis, optimization and control for energy processes at Carnegie Mellon University, Princeton University, West Virginia University, Boston University, and the University of Texas. This alliance of research institutions combined their formidable specialties to achieve the primary objective of the initiative, the creation of the advanced computational tools and models needed to accelerate the development and deployment of cost effective carbon capture technologies.

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80.6% of the total energy consumption of the world still comes from fossil fuels.

Capture technologies are exactly what they sounds like: technologies designed to be incorporated into fossil-fueled energy production facilities to isolate and capture the CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere. The current U.S. strategy for climate change mitigation relies on carbon capture as an integral component of the plan. From solvents to sorbents, the techniques and methods for capture are varied, but the common denominator is the time it takes for a technology to "scale-up," or transition from the small-scale of the laboratory to the industrial-scale of a commercial power plant. A scale-up of that magnitude can take between 20 and 30 years. And here is where CCSI, with its unique multi-disciplinary, multi-organizational structure, has found an important role to play.

CCSI is poised to shave years off the time it takes to get a capture technology deployed into the power generation industry by using computational modeling and simulation. Computer modeling of the type performed by CCSI is incredibly challenging, relying on expertise from multiple scientific disciplines, from statisticians to chemical engineers. Through a blend of physics, math, and computer science, researchers are able create a computer simulation to study and predict the behavior of complex systems, like a power plant with carbon capture.

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Without a computer model, you would have to bake thousands of batches of, mostly inedible, cookies.

Carbon capture systems are extremely complex to model; but computational models can use the same principles to simulate simpler systems as well—cookie baking, for instance. Chocolate chip cookies have about a dozen ingredients, which all contribute to the cookie in a different way. In order to discover how each ingredient impacts the resulting cookie, you could bake thousands upon thousands of batches, leaving ingredients out or altering their quantities each time. The process would be expensive, laborious, and incredibly time-intensive.

The alternative is to create a computer model. By telling the computer what ingredients are in the cookies, describing what each ingredient does, and detailing how it interacts with the other ingredients, the virtual baking simulation can tell you how each batch of cookies will turn out – saving significant time and effort. Modeling a carbon capture system is orders of magnitude more complex than modeling cookie baking, but, appropriately, the benefits of applying computer simulations to carbon capture technology development are just as magnified. The models developed by CCSI are expected to reduce technology development time by 25 percent (a reduction of 5–7 years over current timeframes) and decrease costs by over $500 million.

And the secret behind the success of the initiative? The seamless integration of its collaborators, from different labs and different fields, working together to pursue the same goal. In order to create an accurate model, each element of the system needs to be accurately described, and, while materials scientists and chemists can describe what occurs at the molecular level, they generally don’t have the engineering expertise to create a model of the process using those materials. Likewise, while engineers can create models, they require laboratory data from chemists and the help of statisticians to quantify the uncertainty in the model’s predictions.

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David Miller, Technical Director of CCSI

David Miller, the Technical Director of CCSI, credits the success of the initiative to the enthusiasm of the participants to partner and learn from each other.

"Over a hundred people have been technically involved with the project, working on different pieces of it," Miller said. "There are people with all sorts of different backgrounds—people who are engineers, people who are statisticians, materials scientists, chemists, computer scientists. From my standpoint, it’s all these different technical viewpoints that have made the project successful. We’ve been able to come together and learn enough of each other’s language and jargon to put together things that, at the beginning of the project, we didn’t even realize might be possible."