Renewables Breakthrough: Can Tin Create Clean Carbon Capture?

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We sometimes indulge our more geeky side and cover topics that, while metals related, are never going to significantly move the needle on metals consumption, pricing or supply and demand. We reserve the right to be geeky.

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While a recent development recently discussed by Mark Shackleton, Professor of Finance and Associate Dean Postgraduate Studies at Lancaster University definitely falls under the “geeky” heading, it could, one day, potentially move the needle for tin demand if the economics permit.

Carbon Capture and Carbon Taxes

One of the biggest dynamics in the next 10 years will be how legislators approach carbon emissions. If they seek to control emissions by putting a significant price on carbon, it will have profound implications for the metals industry, along with just about every energy-consuming activity out there.

So, while carbon capture has not been featured as a viable technology so far, in spite of millions being spent on research and development, that does not mean it will not in the future, should the price of carbon rise to make such technologies not only viable but imperative.

Carbon Reduction in Action

Carbon emissions have been reduced in many countries, including quite dramatically in the US, by the switch from coal-fired power stations to natural gas-powered electricity generation. But natural gas still produces carbon dioxide as the methane in the gas reacts with oxygen to form water and CO₂. What if, as the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany propose, the carbon could be stripped out of the methane before it is even burned?

Methane without carbon is essentially hydrogen that burns with oxygen to form water. Or, alternatively, can be consumed in hydrogen fuel cells to power all manner of vehicles and devices to again produce electricity and water. Either way, it produces the perfect non-polluting fuel — the trick is how to do you get the carbon out without creating CO₂?

Methane Breakthrough? Through Tin?

Dr. Thomas Wetzel of the Karlsruhe Institute and his colleagues have a process that could do just that. It essentially cracks methane to form hydrogen gas and solid carbon in the form of inert powder. The technique passes methane bubbles through a column of molten tin where 78% of the methane is cracked into pure hydrogen without producing any CO₂.

Instead, pure carbon forms a solid on the surface of the molten tin where it is continuously removed and can be used in a variety of applications such as car tires as a filler, as a pigment or — if activated like charcoal — in filters. The process requires heating to 1,200 degrees Celsius, but the process can be powered by using some of the hydrogen generated.

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There are two major caveats. First, it is not yet economically viable but further research and development will surely bring down the costs. Second, there is not enough natural gas nor enough tin to provide all our power needs even if it were economically viable. Still, it could be part of a mix providing base load power with more variable renewables if the numbers can be made to stack up, and the technology certainly provides an elegant non-polluting alternative to the use of a fossil fuels for power generation.

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