TECHNOLOGY:

From Star Wars to carbon capture -- do fairy tales come true?

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- This will be the winter of discontent for many owners of the nation's coal-fired electrical utilities. There is no clear federal policy on what climate regulations might be in place five or 10 years from now. But some of these owners will have to bet on one because they face multimillion-dollar decisions now about closing old power plants and building new ones. The process takes years.

In 2007, Drew Rankin got his first call from a local inventor. The man said he understood the problems Rankin was facing as general manager of this city's two coal-fired power plants. The inventor claimed he had made a breakthrough: a radically improved "scrubber" that could remove carbon dioxide and other pollutants at a fraction of the cost of conventional methods.

While President Obama and other Washington officials talk confidently about breakthroughs that might solve the United States' energy problems, in the utility industry, prompt breakthroughs are regarded as fairy tales. Rankin, who has two engineering degrees, found himself rolling his eyes. Some guy down the street had solved one of the toughest problems in energy?

What Rankin had learned from a career of running large power plants was that scrubbers are huge, cumbersome and prone to corrosion and clogged pipes. They amount to a separate chemical plant that must be installed next to the power plant. They can cost utilities hundreds of millions of dollars and haven't improved all that much since the 1990s. Moreover, conventional wisdom in the utility industry was that CO2 couldn't be "scrubbed" cost-effectively.

Rankin was tempted to dismiss the caller as a crank, but he didn't. Colorado Springs, he explained during an interview with ClimateWire, is surrounded by five major U.S. military installations. They pursue high technology and hire some very smart people. He agreed to meet the inventor. "If we don't have curiosity, we don't grow at all," he explained.

Rankin's curiosity has certainly grown since then. By now, Colorado Springs Utilities, the city-owned company that Rankin works for, has spent $17 million testing and developing the inventor's process. This month, the city will begin to invest $80 million more, enough to bring its oldest power plant into compliance with looming state regulations requiring cuts in sulfur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

That's cheap, compared to the $350 million the utility thought it would have to spend for conventional scrubbers. "I will tell you," Rankin admitted in an interview, "that it's almost too good to be true."

"Doctor Dave" comes to the plant

What initially impressed Rankin, 49, was that the inventor, David Neumann, a physicist and laser expert who formerly taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, didn't want any of the utility's money.

What Neumann wanted was a 6-inch pipe that contained a tiny fraction of the emissions spewing from the utility's oldest power plant, the Martin Drake, which is located right downtown.

That would allow him to provide a more robust test for an idea, spawned by secret research on an Air Force defense project, that seemed to work well in his laboratory.

Neumann -- who became known as "Doctor Dave" around the plant -- brought in a big truck loaded with gear from his lab and hooked it up to the pipe. The result, according to Rankin, was "significant removals" of SOx, NOx and CO2. So Rankin hooked up a bigger pipe. The test results remained the same, but skeptics in the company wanted a still bigger test.

"This was where the money started to get serious," explained Rankin. The next stage was a 6-foot-by-6-foot duct that fed about 10 percent of the power plant's hot, sooty exhaust into Neumann's prototype scrubber. The results continued to be impressive. The air around the power plant seemed cleaner.

Other utilities became curious about what was going on. This August, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) brought in a team of engineers led by George Offen, senior technical executive at EPRI. They were impressed by the removal of SOx and NOx and signs that the scrubber could also be employed to remove CO2. "He's got a good potential technology," said Offen, who added that Neumann's claims for his trademarked "PureStream" scrubbing process did not appear overstated.

There is a worldwide hunt going on for technology that can cost-effectively scrub CO2. Some current technologies can do it, but they can raise the price of electricity 60 to 80 percent. Offen said utilities want something that approached the Department of Energy's goal of no more than a 35 percent increase in electricity prices.

A black art

That would be a breakthrough, and EPRI has looked at more than 100 processes over the past five years to find it. But grasping what's going on with coal emissions scrubbing remains a black art. "Many of the larger companies don't even tell you what they're working on," Offen explained. EPRI, he said, wants to work with Neumann when his CO2 scrubbing process becomes fully operational.

Scrubbers are set up in the exhaust stream of power plants. "Think of it as a giant rain shower," said Rankin, describing how scrubbers spray a slurry of water and powdered lime. The resulting chemical interaction traps sulfur and ash in the slurry. The ash and the sulfur are removed, and the water is recycled to mix with a fresh batch of lime.

Neumann's approach breaks the shower apparatus into small modules and uses a specially designed nozzle that sprays thinner streams of a clear liquid through the emissions. Because they provided greater contact with pollutants, Rankin found the modules removed a higher level of them. There were also other benefits: The devices took up about a third of the space and appeared to need only half of the water and half the maintenance required by a conventional scrubber.

Over 20 years, Rankin calculated, the invention had the potential to save the city's electricity users $1.9 billion.

Moreover, the technology, might also save the Martin Drake power plant, built in 1925. It is largely paid for, but it still faced destruction because its downtown location does not have enough space to build a conventional scrubber next to it. "I'm not the sharpest drill bit in the toolbox, but when you start looking at this value proposition, it's pretty phenomenal," explained Rankin.

The terms of the deal got still better when Neumann offered the city a small percentage of his sales, once PureStream became commercial. The terms, according to Rankin, are still being worked out, but the prospect of extra income from becoming a partner in the breakthrough got the attention of some of the movers and shakers in this recession-plagued city.

The Colorado Springs Gazette editorialized that the deal "may be the greatest seed of economic development our community has seen in decades." The newspaper envisioned "hundreds of primary jobs" in designing and making the new scrubbers for power plants around the world.

A conservative town makes a bet

Colorado Springs (population 405,000) gets 70 percent of its electricity from coal. It takes three long coal trains every week to feed its two power plants. While it has future plans to get more electricity from renewable energy and by increasing energy efficiency, switching away from coal for the bulk of its power would be a major expense.

The city applied to the Energy Department for $65 million in federal stimulus funds to test the CO2 removal capability of Neumann's process on all of Martin Drake's emissions, but the application was turned down. So the utility is currently focused on removing sulfur and nitrogen oxides. "We have to spend the gross majority of our time trying to keep the lights on," explained Rankin.

Jan Martin, a member of the city council, which doubles as the utility's board of directors, believes that once the utility shows progress in its $200 million experiment, "we could look to a broader circle of help" in expanding the effort to remove CO2. "If this succeeded, it could change the place of environmentally acceptable coal plants around the world," she added.

While Colorado Springs is a very conservative community, she said "there has not been pushback" on the decision to go ahead with the $200 million installation of Neumann's scrubbers. "Many people in the community really understand the potential that this project holds," she said.

The one person in town who does not want to talk about the experiment appears to be Neumann himself, whose company, Neumann Systems Group Inc., turned down several requests from ClimateWire for an interview. "Dave is a little cautious. His fear is, he knows he's onto something big," explained Rankin. "He's worried about infringement on his intellectual properties."

The paternity of breakthroughs is often hard to trace, but on its website, Neumann's company offers a few clues into the origins of "PureStream." The company's other research projects include work on airborne lasers for the Pentagon.

Son of Star Wars soldiers on

The idea that powerful space-based lasers could shoot down incoming nuclear missiles was part of the fabled "Star Wars" program. It was used by the Reagan administration to pose the potential of a massive defense breakthrough that helped cause the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

The space-based weapons never materialized, but spinoffs continued, involving tests of big lasers that could be fired from a modified Boeing 747. Descriptions of some of these lasers in unclassified literature talk about pumping exotic gases at high velocities through specially shaped nozzles to increase the power of the resulting laser beam.

Offen, of EPRI, said his examination of Neumann's scrubber shows it is based on "extremely fine nozzles" that spray fluid into the power plant's exhaust gases. Rankin, of Colorado Springs Utilities, says there is a relationship with airborne lasers, but he wouldn't explain it any further. "It's a cross-application of [Department of Defense] work into private industry applications," he said.

The Air Force appears to have shut down its airborne laser program this year because it was deemed "not operationally viable," but a fragment of Star Wars soldiers on, here, in the innards of an old, coal-fired power plant. Jerry Forte, the chief executive of the city's utility, noted that many other cities face the same regulatory uncertainties, but Colorado Springs is determined to do something about them.

"Is coal the problem, or are emissions the problem? We've chosen the problem isn't coal. Coal use is projected to increase and not decrease," he explained. "What we're doing with Dr. Neumann is to try to liberate coal" by making it environmentally safe for future use.