PNNL researchers look to China for help with projects

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerDecember 12, 2010 

RICHLAND — Common national problems and complementary research strengths are helping forge a bond that reaches across the Pacific Ocean from Richland to China.

China and the United States, the world's largest two economies, face similar major issues: They are the world's largest energy users and produce the most air emissions.

To find ways to reduce emissions while sustaining growth, scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland and their Chinese counterparts increasingly are collaborating on research projects.

Gov. Chris Gregoire's fall trade mission to China put an additional focus on the collaboration and how not only the environment, but also Washington's economy, could benefit.

It's not just apples, grain, airplanes and software that the state exports.

Clean energy technology has the potential to be just as big or bigger, said Mike Davis, PNNL associate director for energy and environment projects.

The collaboration isn't new, but instead of a Richland researcher occasionally teaming up with a colleague in China, the connection has grown to link institutions.

And as policy and scientific leaders connect, it might mean partnerships will not only be sustained but also will increase, PNNL leaders believe.

The Department of Energy national lab in Richland has established nine key agreements with Chinese institutions and universities, and is collaborating on more than 20 projects, many of them energy-related.

Ruby Leung of PNNL is taking advantage of more than 1,000 years of data available for China to study global climate change. Casie Davidson of PNNL is helping lead the only nationwide assessment of sequestering carbon dioxide underground in China. Other researchers are working with Chinese researchers to develop a catalyst that could make hydrogen a more practical fuel.

Both countries bring strengths that will benefit the other, said PNNL leaders.

"This country is very, very good at scientific discovery and innovation," said Mike Kluse, director of PNNL.

But China holds the advantage in quickly putting discoveries to practical use.

"They deploy very, very rapidly," Davis said. "They really do build faster than anyone else."

With 1 billion more people than the United States, China needs to create 10 million jobs a year to avoid social unrest, he said.

"Our relationship has been to try to connect development and deployment," he said.

While both countries recognize the value of their different strengths, Davis said, they do have different motivations in their collaboration.

Each needs to solve energy security issues -- developing an affordable and reliable energy supply. But their environmental issues are not confined by national borders.

"Emissions anywhere become emissions everywhere," Davis said.

U.S. air quality is the envy of the world, after improvements in recent decades. But less has been done to address carbon dioxide emissions.

In contrast, China's problems with air and water quality are life threatening.

"They look at carbon dioxide emissions as a problem, but it is not killing people today," Davis said.

PNNL's approach with its Chinese partners is to look at not only the emissions that cause health hazards in China, such as smog, but also to look at carbon dioxide emissions that concern U.S. leaders.

"People are going to burn coal. It's the fastest-growing energy source on the planet," Davis said. "Both the United States and China have abundant coal resources."

The goal is to figure out how to use it without near-term problems.

"We owe it to ourselves and the world to develop and then deploy technology that will significantly reduce industrial emissions," Kluse said.

The strengthened links between the two nations remain something of a surprise for Kluse, who spent much of his career in national security.

"Twenty-five years ago if you told me I would be walking the streets of Beijing, that would be remarkable," he said.

But after multiple trips to China, he's finding the people warm and hospitable, and the leadership engaged.

"I truly believe they are committed to strong partnerships with the U.S.," he said.

Research using catalysts

PNNL is using its strengths in catalysis research -- using a catalyst to speed up a chemical reaction -- in several projects with China to reduce greenhouse gases or ensure each nation has enough affordable energy.

PNNL has developed expertise in understanding catalytic material -- how atoms are aligned, how they interact and how they react -- using the lab's Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory's cutting edge equipment, including the world's largest nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer.

But the Chinese have the manpower for intensive labor needed to produce materials and test them. When they find intriguing performances, the materials can be characterized at PNNL, said George Muntean, PNNL chief engineer.

In one project, researchers have been collaborating for four years on efficiently using catalysts to make storage of hydrogen practical enough to use hydrogen as a fuel source, Muntean said.

In another project, researchers are investigating ways to put to use the methane that is a byproduct of drilling for oil. The pipes that rise from oil fields, topped with burning flames of natural gas, waste fossil fuels and dump carbon dioxide into the air.

Researchers are investigating using a zeolite mineral to efficiently turn methane into liquid benzene, which can be piped from remote areas but that requires the right catalyst structure.

Again, Chinese researchers are working on the chemical compound, while PNNL is working on characterizing the compounds.

Carbon dioxide capture

The work that Davidson, a PNNL research scientist, is helping lead with PNNL and Chinese Academy of Sciences researchers is a critical first step toward establishing the potential for storing carbon dioxide underground in China and keeping it out of the atmosphere.

Conventional wisdom has been that China does not have enough deep geologic storage capacity for carbon dioxide. But the joint research over five years has identified key geological storage formations, assessed the capacity of each and identified major industrial sources of carbon dioxide in China.

"We found good news," Davidson said.

China has enough capacity to meet anticipated deep geological storage demand for at least a century, the PNNL study found. That could allow China to continue using cheap, domestic coal while reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

In addition, deep geological capacity is close enough to the carbon dioxide-emitting plants to be of practical use. China has more than 1,620 major sources of carbon dioxide emissions, including coal-fired plants, cement kilns, steel mills and refineries, and is continuing to build coal-fired plants at a rapid rate to meet its growing energy needs. Already 70 percent of its emissions from large industrial sources are from coal.

The joint studies have found that 90 percent of the existing large industrial sources of carbon dioxide are within 100 miles of a potential carbon storage reservoir. That means capture and storage technology could be used without building long-distance pipelines.

Davidson said she hopes the study, combined with other PNNL work, will lay the ground work for a related pilot project in China.

Climate change

Both the old and the new make China a valuable resource for learning about climate change.

Its weather records reach back more than 1,000 years on topics such as temperatures and drought conditions. And during the past 50 years, the country has undergone rapid change.

While the U.S. is interested in the data China provides and how it can be used to study climate change, both countries are interested in developing better climate change models, said Leung, a laboratory fellow in the PNNL Atmospheric Sciences and Global Change Division.

For instance, China has major flooding during the summer monsoons almost every year, but where the floods will occur has been difficult to predict. China is interested in improving climate models and the predictions, which also may improve climate change forecasting.

PNNL researchers also have been looking at the connection between air quality and climate in light of China's dramatic economic growth and the pollution it creates.

PNNL researchers, working with colleagues from China and Sweden, focused on changes in rainfall patterns over the past 50 years in eastern China, where most of the nation's people live and most pollution sources are.

Southeast China has seen increased amounts of annual rainfall, while the northern half of the country has had more droughts in the last 50 years. But the light rainfall that sustains crops -- rather than the heavy rains that flood farmland -- has decreased everywhere, rather than following previous patterns.

Researchers concluded that aerosols in air were interfering with formation of rain clouds, suggesting that bad air quality might be affecting the country's ability to raise crops, plus contributing to health and environmental problems.

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