Ramgen, Maker of CO2 Compression Technology, Aims to Fight Climate Change

Forget renewable fuels for a minute. If the world is ever going to get serious about avoiding a global warming catastrophe, then we need to capture carbon dioxide being spewed from power plants into the atmosphere and bury it underground, at least according to one school of thought. The technology to make this practical on a grand scale doesn’t exist, but Ramgen Power Systems, a small company in Bellevue, WA, full of aerospace engineers, says it has learned some things from jet engines that could turn this vision into reality.

Ramgen arrived on my radar in May, when it secured $20 million in federal stimulus money for its carbon compression technology. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu cited the company as a leader in the effort to make coal-fired power plants cleaner for the environment. This technology is complicated stuff, and the implications are potentially profound, so I visited Ramgen CEO Doug Jewett at his office last week to learn about it in greater depth.

The problem Ramgen is facing is so big, it needs to first be placed in proper context. To avoid melting of polar ice caps that would flood many highly-populated coastal areas around the world, the U.S. and the world needs to cut its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, from baseline readings in 1990, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Where to cut? That’s hard to say. Most of the energy Americans use goes to four primary sectors—generating electricity, transportation, industry, and residential and commercial use. So to reduce carbon emissions, people could switch to electric cars, buses, trucks, and electric heating and cooling in homes and offices, Jewett says. That means there’s going to be a lot more demand for electricity. And where does that come from? More than half of the nation’s electricity, and the leading source of air pollution, comes from the same source—coal. That isn’t likely to change anytime soon, Jewett says, so the real question is how to continue burning coal and natural gas to meet demand for electricity, without causing an environmental disaster.

“Most of what people are talking about with renewable involves incremental decreases in carbon emissions,” Jewett says. “Carbon capture and storage is key if we’re going to be effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

“It’s very troubling,” he says.

OK, so how does Ramgen fit into this picture? The company was founded in 1992 by Shawn Lawlor, who learned about ramjet engine principles while studying aeronautics and astronautics in bachelor’s and masters programs at the University of Washington. The concept is pretty simple. Supersonic airplanes like F-18 fighter jets create shock waves that, with a little clever engineering using air inlet structures that have been around for decades, can be used to tightly compress the air as it passes into the engine, allowing for more efficient combustion of the jet fuel, and therefore, a more efficient engine. “You get more pop out of the fuel if it’s mixed with highly compressed air,” Jewett says.

So what does this have to do with coal-fired power plants, which aren’t designed to hurtle through the air at Mach 2? Lawlor wondered if there was a way to design inlets that could perform this function in a stationary environment by spinning discs, at tremendous speeds like Mach 2 and above, harnessing the resulting shock waves so that they could compress a lot of air. This could then lead to significant energy and compressor efficiency gains for industrial customers.

The company raised $2 million in angel funding in its first five years, and got its first patents on rotating supersonic compression. Jewett, a former Seattle City Attorney, entered the picture as an angel investor in 1998 and was soon installed as president and CEO. But the company’s initial application, for making a 10 Megawatt engine for electric power generation, ran out of money during the Enron-led energy crisis in 2001, and the subsequent economic downturn following that year’s terrorist attacks, Jewett says.

Ramgen bounced back in 2002 with private funding and support from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop an air compressor. Then in 2005, it won a design competition sponsored by the DOE that committed $11 million over four years. The Department of Energy told the company that it would like to focus on developing its ramjet shock wave technology to compress air, and more specifically the carbon dioxide part, because it’s one of the critical steps needed as part of a larger strategy for carbon capture and storage, Jewett says.

So how does it compare with the existing paradigm for industrial air compression, and how is Ramgen’s technology really different? Jewett had to step up to the white board to answer that.

Industrial centrifugal air compressors that do all sorts of things—everything from running power tools in automated factories to the manufacture of computer chips—aren’t really set up to handle shock waves that result when blades spin faster than the speed of sound, about 700 miles per hour. The waves actually disrupt their compression, so these machines have to run their blades below the speed of sound, Jewett says.

But at the slower speeds, these machines can only achieve about 3-to-1 levels of compression, while generating a lot of extra heat—an increase of as much as 200 degrees Fahrenheit. To get rid of that waste heat, the air has to run through a water-fed cooling apparatus, on its way to another compression chamber, and then another intercooling step, for each attempt to compress air further, Jewett says. To really compress air tightly, several steps of compression and cooling are required.

By comparison, the Ramgen system is designed to take the regular air we breathe and compress it down nine-fold without any need for intercooling, Jewett says. Its system, which runs turbines at speeds up to Mach 2.4, generates a lot more heat, more than 400 degrees Fahrenheit. But that’s hot enough that it can be useful, Jewett says. The Ramgen turbines throw off steam that can be turned into electricity, Jewett said.

What does this kind of technology cost? An average coal-fired power plant would need to spend $50 to $100 million just for the air compression piece of a carbon capture and sequestration system, which probably would add up to $200 million for each plant, Jewett says. There are more than 600 of those plants in the U.S. alone, so the price tag for taxpayers could get big in a hurry. Capturing, compressing, and injecting all this carbon dioxide underground will be so expensive that it will likely raise the average home electricity bill by 20 percent per month, Jewett says. When I asked if this bill will run into the trillions, he didn’t try to correct that notion. “It’s a huge number,” he says.

Ramgen isn’t far enough along in development to offer firm price quotes on its machines, but it should lower capital costs by half, and lower operating costs by half because the company can generate some electricity that can be sold onto the grid, Jewett says.

The technology is now in a demonstration stage, Jewett says. The $20 million in federal stimulus money is being pooled with $25 million from Houston, TX-based Dresser-Rand (NYSE: DRC) the giant maker of rotating air compressor equipment for industrial customers, including oil and gas producers. Dresser-Rand, a company with 6,400 employees and support centers in 140 countries, formed a partnership with Ramgen last November to co-develop the shock wave air compressors. It called Ramgen’s technology “game-changing,” in a statement. As part of the deal, Dresser-Rand obtained an option to acquire Ramgen, although terms aren’t being disclosed, Jewett says.

It will take time to build up the demonstration site at a Dresser-Rand facility in New York. But Ramgen expects that site to be up and running, and able to provide an answer by the first half of 2012 on whether the technology is ready for prime time in a commercial setting, Jewett says. Ramgen still only has 27 employees, so getting the stimulus money and Dresser-Rand financing is significant, because it means Ramgen has the resources, and expertise of big organizations, to be able to get the demonstration project going in two years instead of four, Jewett says. The company is already moving quickly to tap its network of sophisticated machine shops, including people who know how to work with turbines, many of whom live nearby in the Puget Sound region because of their relationships to Boeing, Jewett says.

Looking around the Ramgen office before leaving, I noticed a lot of the employees are avid bicyclists who brought their bikes into their offices, including Jewett. He told me it’s more because he wants to maintain his health, and I shouldn’t read too much into it as a sign of his environmental bona fides. But he didn’t try to downplay the idea that his company has a chance to do some good by providing enabling technology for a national strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even though his company doesn’t usually make headlines like renewable fuels do, it could be a much bigger part of making this a more sustainable planet.

“We are right in the middle of it,” Jewett says. “We have 100 projects from around the world that have called to say if you’ve got it [efficient carbon compression], then we want it. Our task is to deliver.”

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