In most parts of the United States, we take access to electricity for granted. “It’s so stable that if we lose power for an hour, we start to panic,” said Richard Axelbaum, the Stifel & Quinette Jens Professor of Environmental Engineering Science at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.

The power grid was built this way intentionally — stable, steady, reliable — at a time when its fuel source was thought to be the same. Summer on the way? Stockpile coal to run the air conditioner. Demand expected to be lower in the fall? Let the stockpile run low; the coal still will be there when we need it.

The addition of wind and solar, which are intermittent forms of renewable energy, has introduced new variables. Uncertainties about their availability at any given moment could spell trouble for a society built to run via reliable sources.

To address this risk, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy has awarded $6.7 million to a team headed by Axelbaum; of that, $5.3 million comes from the Department of Energy, while an additional $1.4 million will be provided by participating organizations.

Zhiwei Yang, a research scientist in Axelbaum’s lab, is the co-principal investigator on the project, and Pratim Biswas, chair of energy, environmental & chemical engineering and the Lucy & Stanley Lopata Professor, is also an investigator. He will work with Axelbaum to develop critical components for the novel staged, pressurized oxy-combustion (SPOC) power plant that is being advanced at Washington University.

These critical components are not commercially available — a power company cannot yet buy them — so before the SPOC technology can be commercialized, these components have to be developed and tested; that will occur in the three-story SPOC facility.

The team will collaborate with researchers from West Virginia University; University of Utah; the Electric Power Research Institute; Doosan Babcock; Linde; Reaction Engineering International; and AECOM to develop a nimble power plant, able to step in and supply power whenever it is needed while also producing minimal emissions.

“We have advanced the technology to the point that it is a relatively mature technology for a university,” said Axelbaum, who runs the SPOC and LACER labs. He and his colleagues have demonstrated the basic concept, with a working prototype in the SPOC facility. But still, he said, the technology is complicated and novel. “We’ve shown it can work and it has the desired characteristics, now we’ll work to mitigate risks associated with commercialization.”

The proposed coal-burning plant will emit almost no carbon while reliably delivering reasonably-priced power to the grid and filling in for wind and solar when they are not available.

After six years of modeling and testing, the team is gearing up to show it can develop the remaining critical components for the SPOC plant, which will help bring us closer to an emissions-free grid that is efficient, and, perhaps most importantly, reliable.

“The technology lends itself to flexible operation,” Axelbaum said, with the ability to ramp up and down to address the intermittency of wind and solar.

“Electricity is our lifeblood. It runs our homes, our workplaces, our hospitals — it’s everywhere and it’s always there. We want to be able to ensure we can have minimal emissions and reliable power,” Axelbaum said.

“That’s the main idea,” he said. “And that requires flexible low-emissions power plants like this to ensure a secure future.”

The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 165 full-time faculty, 1,420 undergraduate students, 1,614 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society’s greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.

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