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At Recarbon, 3D printing is powering clean energy

AM plays a critical part in ReCarbon’s plasma carbon conversion technology, which transforms greenhouse gases into clean energy.

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There is no question that one of the most pressing issues of our time is climate change. Key to addressing it—as many scientists have stated—is curbing our consumption of fossil fuels and ultimately reducing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. One solution is transitioning to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. However, there is also another urgent question: as long as we are still extracting and using fossil fuels, how do we mitigate the impact of these resources on the planet? Leveraging 3D printing in-house to advance development, California-based ReCarbon looks to answer this question.

The California-based company, founded in 2011 by plasma physicist Jay Kim, has developed a solution that converts plasma carbon to transform greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into clean energy. As Kim says: the company is “creating circularity where there is now only pollution.” As it turns out, the company’s innovative solution owes quite a lot to additive manufacturing, as the technology has enabled ReCarbon engineers the freedom to explore new concepts and optimize their systems. Always eager to learn more about how AM fits into clean energy solutions, we spoke to Paul Hichwa, Senior Mechanical Engineer of R&D at ReCarbon.

ReCarbon’s PCCU technology

Hichwa introduces the company, saying: “ReCarbon is a carbon utilization company that transforms greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), into clean fuels and products. Our mission is to decarbonize hard-to-abate, carbon-emitting industries and biogenic sources by transforming waste emissions into valuable, low-carbon products such as methanol, ethanol, hydrogen, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and more.”

This conversion process is enabled by the company’s Plasma Carbon Conversion Unit (PCCU), a modular and scalable system that can produce up to 900 kg of hydrogen per unit per day. Hichwa elaborates on how ReCarbon’s technology works: “The Plasma Carbon Conversion Unit uses ReCarbon’s proprietary floating microwave plasma technology to break the bonds of greenhouse gases to make clean fuels and products. The plasma transforms carbon dioxide and methane into H2 and CO, known as syngas. This is all done without a catalyst and can be powered by renewable electricity.”

This technology can benefit many industries, particularly carbon-emitting industries that are aiming to both “decarbonize their operations and create low-carbon fuels and climate positive products,” as Hichwa says. “These products include low and no-carbon ethanol, clean hydrogen from biogas, green methanol for the maritime shipping industry and SAF for aviation.”

3D printing plays a critical part in plasma carbon conversion technology by ReCarbon, to transform greenhouse gases into clean energy.
The Plasma Carbon Conversion Unit (PCCU) is ReCarbon’s greenhouse gas processing system. The PCCU transforms carbon emissions into hydrogen and syngas, used in products such as chemicals, fuels and energy. For example, with 70 Emission Blades configured in a standard 40-foot container, each PCCU module can produce up to 900kg of hydrogen per day.

Additive’s role in R&D

The reason that we’re highlighting ReCarbon’s work in this eBook is that additive manufacturing has become an integral part of its R&D and production processes. For one, the use of AM has enabled ReCarbon’s team to establish an agile development and testing workflow, saving the company significant time and money in developing its technology. For another, additive manufacturing unlocks new design possibilities that would be impossible using conventional manufacturing processes.

“We are continually developing and advancing our technology,” Hichwa says. “To do this we rely on technologies that clarify our direction and accelerate research and development. This necessitates a quick-turn, iterative testing paradigm. We are using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to guide concept ideation; additive manufacturing of super alloys to augment our in-house fabrication and machining processes to produce new reactor designs; and our custom, configurable test station to gather data and evaluate the performance of new designs.”

3D printing plays a critical part in plasma carbon conversion technology by ReCarbon, to transform greenhouse gases into clean energy.
At the heart of ReCarbon’s innovation is the Emission Blade — a patented microwave-plasma generation device with demonstrated reliability, high throughput, and energy efficiency.

If the company didn’t utilize additive manufacturing in its development cycles, it would be dealing with multi-week timelines and the potential for delays at every step. As Hichwa explains, a typical prototyping process using traditional manufacturing processes would require one to four weeks to procure materials, two to four weeks to send the materials to a machine shop and another two to four weeks for post-processing. With in-house 3D printing, however, test-ready parts can be produced in as little as a week. “It’s a dramatic reduction that we absolutely need to scale up,” he says. “This gives our team the freedom to experiment, test and learn quickly.”

3D printing plays a critical part in plasma carbon conversion technology by ReCarbon, to transform greenhouse gases into clean energy. Optimizing reactor design

In addition to using additive manufacturing to accelerate the prototyping of test parts, ReCarbon has also taken advantage of the technology’s design freedom to optimize critical components in its reactor. “Additive manufacturing has led to more robust and optimized designs through enabling new geometries of critical components,” Hichwa tells us. “Traditional subtractive fabrication has limitations with the geometries that can be produced easily and cost-effectively.”

For instance, ReCarbon was able to redesign and consolidate a critical part in its reactor thanks to metal AM. The part in question had previously consisted of five custom-machined pieces that had to be welded together. Now, the part can be printed in a single piece and benefits from an optimized geometry.

The reactor component in question was printed on ReCarbon’s in-house EOS M 290 machine using EOS NickelAlloy HX, a nickel-chromium-iron-molybdenum alloy capable of withstanding temperatures in the range of 1200°C. As Hichwa summarizes, ReCarbon’s use of AM in this case “decreases overall component costs, reduces the risk of defective parts by reducing the number of processes and components, reduces our supply chain complexity and increases this component’s operability ranges.”

ReCarbon’s solution in action

ReCarbon’s PCCU technology undoubtedly has the potential to improve carbon emissions, particularly for industries that are notorious for greenhouse gas emissions such as steel, chemical and cement manufacturing. According to Hichwa, the company has already experienced significant interest from these industries, as well as from the tech sector and clean fuel suppliers.

“Tech leaders are interested as they look to meet their ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets,” he adds. “Our technology can help them realize their ambitions to create circularity within their supply chain. Large purchasers of clean fuels and products have also shown great interest as we continue to increase our network of partners and collaborators and build the waste to low and no-carbon products ecosystem.”

3D printing plays a critical part in plasma carbon conversion technology by ReCarbon, to transform greenhouse gases into clean energy.

ReCarbon has already completed three pilot projects for its scalable PCCU technology and recently launched the solution commercially. In fact, in 2022 the company partnered with Woodside Energy, a petroleum exploration and production company, to launch a flagship commercial project.

“This flagship project showcases ReCarbon’s value for companies with ambitious carbon reduction goals to deploy technology to achieve verified carbon reductions,” Hichwa elaborates. “ReCarbon is also engaging with companies in the US, Japan and South Korea seeking to decarbonize chemical processes, power plants and biogenic waste sources—such as landfills, wastewater treatment plants and diverted organic waste facilities—to produce clean, low and no-carbon fuels and products.”

Ultimately, ReCarbon sees 3D printing as an important solution as it develops and deploys its PCCU technology. “Not only does AM decrease the time needed for research and development through rapid prototyping, but it also has the potential to be a major fabrication method for more of our next-generation equipment,” Hichwa concludes. “This will shorten and simplify our supply chains, reduce part count and complexity and improve maintainability of plant equipment.”

This story was originally published in VoxelMatters’ VM Focus Energy eBook. Download it free here.

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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