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Space Oddity - How Rocket Technology Could Help Power the Energy Transition

Back in the early days of the Space Race, popular culture envisaged aerospace technology that might one day have us all zooming around town like George Jetson in his flying car. That hasn’t turned out to be the case, but developments that have evolved from rocket technology could one day play a different role here in the 21st century, where producing cleaner power and managing the energy transition are two key global goals. In today’s RBN blog, we look at an innovative “bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration” (BECCS) project being undertaken in California by Clean Energy Systems (CES) and its partners, how the company’s technology is designed to work, and what “carbon-negative energy” might mean.

The history behind CES starts with rocket pioneer Rudi Beichel, who worked under the famed Wernher von Braun and was one of 1,600 German scientists brought to the U.S. at the close of World War II as part of Operation Paperclip. Beichel played a critical role in the development of the U.S. space program during the height of the Cold War, helping to design the rocket that took Alan Shepard into space in 1961 and the engines that powered the Space Shuttle. The initial CES team of seven — each with a different specialty — was formed by Beichel in 1993 with an eye toward using the group’s aerospace expertise to develop new power plant technologies. It received its first patent in 1998, a year before Beichel died, and has continued to advance its technology through pilot projects and demonstrations, including U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funding to develop its industrial-scale oxy-fuel turbine, which was successfully tested in 2013.

The oxy-fuel combustion system, adapted from the same principles of rocket propulsion developed in the 1960s, is at the core of CES’s technology. The central feature is the ability to burn fossil fuels with oxygen at near-stoichiometric conditions (meaning that all combustible elements are burned near maximum efficiency with no oxygen remaining in the combustion air), a process that can produce steam at very high temperatures. The process itself is very flexible, in that it can burn a wide variety of fuels, from natural gas and syngas to biomass waste and landfill gas. Carbon dioxide (CO2) and steam are the primary products of the combustion process, with the CO2 able to be captured for permanent storage using carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), a process we have discussed in our Way Down in the Hole series.

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