DURHAM – The future of electrical power generation could very well be built in Durham where NET Power charges ahead with technology that might remake the grid.

NET Power announced an undisclosed investment from an Occidental Petroleum subsidiary, Oxy Low Carbon Ventures (OLCV), last week. It’s the latest in a series of deals the startup has negotiated with major power industry partners.

What’s driving the funding and interest?

It’s first plant to power a new natural gas power system that produces low-cost electricity with zero atmospheric emissions – including carbon dioxide, or CO2 -went online for testing in May in La Porte, Texas. It’s the “world’s first and only industrial-scale supercritical CO2-based power plant,” notes NET Power.

Durham’s NET Power lands investment from Occidental Petroleum subsidiary

“We are very pleased with the results to date, having successfully demonstrated the most novel piece of equipment in the process—the combustor—and the overall operability of this new process,” says Walker Dimmig, a principal at 8 Rivers Capital which backs NET Power.  “Testing will continue on into 2019.”

The company was founded by Durham-based 8 Rivers Capital in 2009 and secured $50 million in 2012.  The firm had raised a total $150 million from 8 Rivers Capital in Durham, Exelon Generation, and McDermott prior to this deal being inked. The amount of the new funding was not disclosed.

WRAL Tech Wire’s Jason Parker chatted with Dimmig to about the company and the future of power.  The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

The technology behind NET Power: The Allam Cycle

NET Power image

NET Power’s Allam Cycle


  • 8 Rivers describes the Allam Cycle as “the only technology that will enable the world to meet all of its climate targets without having to pay more for electricity” and shares that the technology “is a new way to generate low-cost power from fossil fuels without producing air emissions.”  Tell us more. 

First, we should understand how conventional fossil fuel plants generate electricity and deal with CO2.  Conventional natural gas power plants burn their fuel with ambient air.  Air, of course, is nearly 80% nitrogen.  As a result, the combustion byproducts in these systems include NOx, which is an ozone-forming pollutant, and a large volume of nitrogen mixed with some CO2.

The fuel is combusted through a gas turbine, which is like a jet engine.  Heat remains in the turbine exhaust, so it uses that heat to boil water and drive a steam turbine.  Those two processes together are known as a “combined cycle.”

And a conventional carbon capture system is essentially an emissions scrubber.  It is applied to the back-end of this plant, where its challenge is to extract the CO2 from this mostly-nitrogen gas stream, clean up that CO2, and then compress it so that I can be put into a pipeline.  These processes require expensive equipment and lots of energy to run them, so they cripple the economic performance of a power plant.

  • So, how is this technology different from existing power production?

We do two things differently.

First, we burn natural gas with pure oxygen, as opposed to ambient air, and we use CO2, instead of steam as the turbine working fluid.  By burning with pure oxygen, our combustion products are really just CO2 and water.  If you cool this stream, the water drops out as a liquid and you’re left with mostly pure CO2—this is much more easily done than trying to separate a moderate amount of Co2 gas from a large volume of nitrogen gas, as the conventional processes described above are attempting to do.

Second, we use this stream of mostly pure CO2 as our working fluid, and it is much more efficient than using steam as a working fluid.  This performance gain enables us to “pay for” the oxygen we used to combust.  Oxygen is not free.  We have to build a piece of equipment, called an air separation unit, to generate that oxygen.

When conventional systems have tried this process, which is known as “oxy-combustion,” the extra capital cost and energy of that equipment made the processes uneconomic, just like the backend carbon capture equipment on traditional power plants made them uneconomic.  But, with NET Power, because we use more-efficient CO2 instead of steam to drive our process, we can afford to produce the oxygen and remain economic.  It brings us back to even with a polluting conventional natural gas plant in terms of efficiency.

Finally, because we are working with pure, high-pressure CO2 to drive our process, we do not have an emissions stream that needs to be scrubbed and compressed in order to be put into a pipeline and be sequestered.  We already have pipeline ready Co2. We essentially have “inherent carbon capture.”

  • When and where did the design and technology evolve?

The design was invented by the core team at 8 Rivers.

From a technical perspective, the key inventors were our Chief Engineer, Jeremy Fetvedt, and Rodney Allam, as well as 8 Rivers’ founders, Bill Brown and Miles Palmer.  Of course, we’ve had a whole team of other talented individuals make invaluable contributions to the invention and design over the years.

The origin story is a bit long, but essentially Bill Brown and Miles Palmer were working on ways to eliminate emissions from coal.  They worked on some concepts, but the the systems they used were uneconomic.  In 2009, Bill was introduced to Rodney Allam, who was retired at the time.  Rodney believed there could be a huge benefit to using CO2, as opposed to steam, as a cycle working fluid, but he had never set his mind to working out how, nor did he have a team to help him turn his concepts into a real system.  So, Rodney joined 8 Rivers, and together the team set about designing a new power cycle. The rest is history.

  • How is this technology disrupting the power sector?

For the power sector, which moves extremely slowly, eight years from the original invention of the concept to a large-scale demonstration is completely unheard of.

There are technologies in the carbon capture space that have been in development for decades and have not yet been scaled this far.  NET Power is largely run through the secondment of employees from its investors.  Some of these individuals are full-time, some are brought in as necessary to help with specific tasks or problems.

The future of power

  • MIT named the Allam Cycle technology as one of the top 10 technologies for 2018.  What does this mean?  How does/will the technology disrupt and change the world?  What does that mean for individuals, families, companies? 

MIT understands the scale of the challenge we are facing around climate change.  The fact of the matter is, we have made enormous strides in the growth of renewable generation over the past decade, and yet we are still disastrously off-course for meeting global climate targets.

Further, while several years ago there was some excitement around the idea that we could get to 100% renewable generation, in recent years almost every major body that has developed a report on the topic, and every major study published, concludes that, at best, such a scenario is highly unlikely and far too costly, and at worst not achievable at all.  Even further, as you look the developing world, particularly in southeast Asia, there is little doubt that fossil generation will be around for a long, long time.

The point of this is not to knock renewables—we are fighting the same fight they are and cheering for their every success–we actually complement each other very well. The point is that we need every possible tool in our toolbox in order to tackle this challenge.  We pursued this technology because we believed that the fossil emissions problem did not have a sufficient solution, and yet it absolutely needed to be solved.

  • What has the fundraising environment been like?  Power technology is often quite expensive to implement.  How has the company approached securing partners, financing, and funding? 

A book could be written here.  “Cleantech” as an investment field has largely been a failure for venture capital.  We’ve taken a different approach.  We do our own technology development work in-house, and we’ve gone to strategic partners to help fund the deployment of the technology.  If the opportunity is large enough, strategic partners will get behind an idea and drive it forward with not only their capital but also their expertise and capabilities.

The industry is on a march towards cleaner generation, and I believe that march is irreversible.  The question is how we do that on the broadest possible scale for costs that the world is willing to bear.  This is where NET Power, and other innovative technologies that are emerging—or haven’t even been thought of yet—are needed.

Someone needed to find a new path forward for the carbon capture problem.  NET Power’s impact can be very, very dramatic.  It can set the world on a course for meeting its climate targets and without the world having to pay more for electricity.  It means we don’t have to live in an either/or world, where constituencies argue over what is cheap and what is clean.

We believe NET Power is on a path to being an incredibly large, successful company—one which can be a defining company in the Triangle. And NET Power is just the beginning. 8 Rivers is working on other technologies that can create an even greater impact.