Future of energy: Cleaner fossil fuels

This story is part of a series on Stanford collaborations helping to create the Future of Energy.

In the United States, most electricity from the grid comes from power plants that run on coal or natural gas. These plants generate 35 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.

Natural gas field

A Stanford study finds that methane emissions from natural gas leaks could be greatly reduced by targeting “super emitters.” (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Climate scientists say we need to reduce global emissions by about 4 percent a year, going to zero emissions, or even negative emissions, before the end of the century. But emissions-free technologies like wind, solar and nuclear may not be able to address the problem quickly enough.

In developing economies, the demand for cheap and reliable electricity from fossil fuels continues to grow, generating even more greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. But from an environmental standpoint, not all fossil fuels are created equal.

Natural gas

Natural gas is primarily methane. When burnt, methane emits about half as much CO2 as a coal. In the last 10 years, the United States has seen a boom in the production of low-cost natural gas, which many electrical utilities are adopting as a cleaner alternative to coal.

But one drawback of natural gas is the leakage of uncombusted methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Stanford faculty members Rob Jackson and Adam Brandt in the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences have been identifying the wells and pipes where those leaks are most likely to occur so that industry can prevent them. They’ve found that a small number of wells produce most of the leaked methane.

To better understand the benefits and risks of increasing natural gas production, the Precourt Institute and the School of Earth created the Natural Gas Initiative (NGI), a campus-wide research program launched in 2015.

One key area of NGI research focuses on unconventional gas reservoirs and how they can be better managed to increase the gas-recovery rate, now well below 20 percent, said NGI Director Mark Zoback. By increasing recovery, gas production can be maintained with fewer land-use impacts, he added.

Carbon capture and sequestration

Beyond switching from coal to natural gas, another approach for reducing emissions from fossil fuels is to capture the carbon dioxide and store it underground in deep geological formations, a technique known as carbon capture and sequestration.

With support from the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP), Lynn Orr,  Sally Benson and other Stanford faculty members helped establish the scientific basis for safe and effective sequestration, including monitoring techniques demonstrating that captured CO2 is permanently trapped underground. Hamdi Tchelepi, a professor of energy resources engineering, uses supercomputers to study how injected CO2 gas interacts with rock and fluids underground. In addition to permanently sequestering CO2, Stanford faculty explore using the gas for sustainable purposes, like making renewable plastic.

Advances in clean fossil fuels

Soil holds potential to slow global warming

The land under our feet and the plant matter it contains could offset a significant amount of carbon emissions if managed properly. More research is needed to unlock soil’s potential to mitigate global warming, improve crop yields and increase resilience to extreme weather.

Study of abandoned oil and gas wells reveals new ways of fixing the worst methane emitters

New research finds far more abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania than previously thought and provides a framework for identifying wells across the United States and globally that are the worst methane leakers.

Stanford scientists discover how microbes acquire electricity in making methane

New findings by Stanford engineering Professor Alfred Spormann and colleagues could pave the way for microbial "factories" that produce renewable biofuels and chemicals.

New research initiative at Stanford to comprehensively study development and use of natural gas

Stanford University's Natural Gas Initiative will research many questions related to the responsible development of natural gas as a fuel supply in the United States and around the world.

New findings by Stanford chemists could lead to greener methanol production

The results, published in Nature, could pave the way to the cleaner production of methanol, an important industrial feedstock and potential green fuel.

‘Super emitters’ responsible for most U.S. methane emissions

A new study finds that just a few natural gas wells account for more than half of the total volume of leaked methane gas in the United States. Fixing leaks at those top emitters could significantly reduce leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Action is needed to make stagnant carbon dioxide emissions fall

2016 marked the third year in a row when global CO2 emissions remained relatively flat, but actual declines won’t materialize without advances in technology and growth in renewables.

New tool reduces risk of triggering manmade earthquakes

A new software tool can help reduce the risk of triggering manmade earthquakes by calculating the probability that oil and gas production activities will trigger slip in nearby faults.

Natural Gas Initiative briefs

Detailed analysis about the role of natural gas in national and international energy plans.

Uranium from seawater factors into nuclear power

As the world shifts from fossil fuels, additional sources of energy-on-demand will be needed to make up for lulls in wind or solar. A new way of extracting uranium from seawater could help even countries without uranium mines harness nuclear power in the post-carbon energy future.

Stanford designs underwater solar cells that turn captured greenhouse gases into fuel

Taking a cue from plants, researchers figure out how to use the sun's energy to combine CO2 with H2O to create benign chemical products, as part of a futuristic technology called artificial photosynthesis.

Stanford scientists make renewable plastic from carbon dioxide and plants

The new technology could provide a green alternative to petroleum-based plastic bottles and other polyester products.  

Is carbon removal technology a high-stakes gamble?

Stanford scientists explain the risks of betting the world’s future on massive-scale deployment of carbon removal technologies.

Stanford engineers develop new air filter that could help Beijing residents breathe easily

Stanford's Yi Cui and his students have turned a material commonly used in surgical gloves into a low-cost, highly efficient air filter.

Is nuclear power clean energy?

Scientists debate the pros and cons of nuclear power at an energy summit.

Unseen gold

Stanford alumni aim to turn waste carbon into usable chemicals for industry.