Reaching For Zero™


Pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of materials at elevated temperatures in an inert atmosphere. It involves a change of chemical composition. The word is coined from the Greek-derived elements pyro "fire" and lysis "separating". Pyrolysis is most commonly used in the treatment of organic materials" - Wikipedia

The making of charcoal is an ancient art, so humans have known about low-oxygen combustion for hundreds of years. But this method of creating a higher grade fuel produces a great deal of GHGs.

More recently, scientists began looking for a low cost method of combusting carbon-based fuel that is CO2-free. Much of what is being done today is built on the pioneering work of Meyer Steinberg and Nazim Muradov.

Combining Oxygen [O2] with a carbon-based fuel in the presence of heat creates fire. The fire releases masses of heat and lots of by-products...including Carbon Dioxide [CO2].

One of the most common carbon fuels that we use is Methane (natural gas). It is a molecule comprised of 1 Carbon atom and 4 Hydrogen atoms [ CH4 ].

There are some intermediate steps but essentially the formula for burning methane is:

CH4 + 2 O2 > > CO2 + 2 H2O + ENERGY

It produces LOTS of CO2.

But, there is a method of burning Methane WITHOUT oxygen. It is called PYROLYSIS. The process produces lots of potential energy but no CO2 because there is no oxygen with which the Carbon can combine to create CO2. (Note: if there were any O2 impurity in the inputs, then there would be corresponding CO2 by-product. Also, if there were any nitrogen impurity nitogen compounds could be produced!*)

The formula is:

ENERGY + CH4 >> C + 2 H2

H2 is hydrogen gas. It produces LOTS of energy. It burns at close to 2000 degrees Celsius, and, it burns pure oxygen without producing CO2 !* In fact, the by-product is pure water [H2O]:

2 H2 + O2 > 2 H2O + ENERGY

In addition to being used as fuel, Hydrogen is used in fertilizer production and many other processes. In other words, it helps feed the world and keep us warm or cool.

C, the carbon that comes out of the pyrolysis process, is used as carbon black and graphite for steel production, rubber manufacturing, ink products, etc.

What is not to love about Methane pyrolysis? It produces an abundance of Hydrogen for clean energy etc. and Carbon, which is used in vital manufacturing production.

* More and more articles are questioning the real GHG potential of hydrogen. Burning hydrogen in pure oxygen does not produce GHGs but burning hydrogen in air, which contains nitrogen, creates nitrogen compounds with powerful Global Warming Potential. Some 265 x that of CO2. So what is the net effect? This paper from the Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, indicates the effect is minimal and that it does NOT negate the benefits of combusting hydrogen instead of methane.

But can pyrolysis be done at a commercial scale?