08 Sep 2014: Analysis

Can Carbon Capture Technology
Be Part of the Climate Solution?

Some scientists and analysts are touting carbon capture and storage as a necessary tool for avoiding catastrophic climate change. But critics of the technology regard it as simply another way of perpetuating a reliance on fossil fuels.

by david biello

For more than 40 years, companies have been drilling for carbon dioxide in southwestern Colorado. Time and geology had conspired to trap an enormous bubble of CO2 that drillers tapped, and a pipeline was built to carry the greenhouse gas all the way to the oil fields of west Texas. When scoured with the CO2, these aged wells gush forth more oil, and much of the CO2 stays permanently trapped in its new home underneath Texas.

More recently, drillers have tapped the Jackson Dome, nearly three miles beneath Jackson, Mississippi, to get at a trapped pocket of CO2 for similar
Kemper County power plant near Meridian, Mississippi
Gary Tramontina/Bloomberg/Getty Images
This power plant being built in Kemper County, Mississippi, would be the first in the U.S. to capture its own carbon emissions.
use. It's called enhanced oil recovery. And now there's a new source of CO2 coming online in Mississippi — a power plant that burns gasified coal in Kemper County, due to be churning out electricity and captured CO2 by 2015 and sending it via a 60-mile pipeline to oil fields in the southern part of the state.

The Mississippi project uses emissions from burning a fossil fuel to help bring more fossil fuels out of the ground — a less than ideal solution to the problem of climate change. But enhanced oil recovery may prove an important step in making more widely available a technology that could be critical for combating climate change — CO2 capture and storage, or CCS.

As the use of coal continues to grow globally — coal consumption is expected to double from 2000 to 2020 largely due to demand in China and India — some scientists believe the widespread adoption of CCS technology could be key to any hope of limiting global average temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius, the threshold for avoiding major climate disruption. After all, coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel.

“Fossil fuels aren’t disappearing anytime soon,” says John Thompson, director of the Fossil Fuel Transition Project for the non-profit Clean Air Task Force. “If we’re serious about preventing global warming, we’re going to have to find a way to use those fuels without the carbon going into the atmosphere. It seems inconceivable that we can do that without a significant amount of carbon capture and storage. The question is how do we deploy it in time and in a way that’s cost-effective across many nations?”

The biggest challenge is one of scale, as the potential demand from aging oil fields for CO2 produced from coal-fired power plants is enormous.
“Why spend so much time and energy coming up with solutions that are not really solutions?” says one critic.
Thompson estimates that enhanced oil recovery could ultimately consume 33 billion metric tons of CO2 in total, or the equivalent of all the CO2 pollution from all U.S. power plants for several decades. Thompson and other analysts view such large-scale enhanced oil recovery as an important phase in the deployment of CCS technology while replacements for fossil fuels are developed.

"In the short term, in order to develop the technology, we probably will enable more use of hydrocarbons, which makes environmentally conscious people uncomfortable,” says Chris Jones, a chemical engineer working on CO2 capture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “But it’s a necessary thing we have to do to get the technology out there and learn how to make it more efficient."

At the same time, CO2 capture and storage is not as simple as locking away carbon deep underground. As Jones notes, the process will perpetuate fossil fuel use and may prove a wash as far as keeping global warming pollution out of the atmosphere. Then there are the risks of human-caused earthquakes as a result of pumping high-pressure liquids underground or accidental releases as all that CO2 finds its way back to the atmosphere.

"Any solution that doesn't take carbon from the air is, in principle, not sustainable," says physicist Peter Eisenberger of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, who is working on methods to pull CO2 out of the sky rather than smokestacks. He notes that merely avoiding CO2 pollution is not enough and will create political powerhouses—heirs to the energy companies of today—that will entrench such unsustainable technologies "Why spend so much time and energy and ingenuity coming up with solutions that are not really solutions?” he adds.

But the expansion of enhanced oil recovery remains the main front in an intensifying effort to more broadly adopt CCS technology and reduce its price, which is currently the major impediment to its deployment. The need for CO2 storage goes beyond China and the U.S., the world's two largest polluters. Worldwide, more than 35 billion metric tons of CO2 are being dumped into the atmosphere annually, almost all from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas. To restrain global warming to the 2 degree C target, more than 100 CCS projects eliminating 270 million metric tons of CO2 pollution annually would have to be built by 2020, according to the International Energy Agency. But only 60 are currently planned or proposed and just 21 of those are actually built or in operation.

Those include the Kemper facility and other coal-fired power plants, but also a CCS project under construction at an ethanol refinery in Illinois. A group led by Royal Dutch Shell is building technology to capture the CO2
The IPCC has suggested that CCS at power plants could prove a critical part of efforts to restrain global warming.
pollution from tar sands operations in Alberta, Canada, and in Saskatchewan, a $1.2 billion project to retrofit a large coal-fired power plant with CCS technology is expected to open later this year. And there are 34 proposed or operating CCS projects outside of North America, the majority in Asia and Australia. But European countries like Germany have rolled back plans to adopt CCS because of public opposition, dropping the number of European projects from 14 planned in 2011 to just five as of 2014, according to the Global CCS Institute.

That might conflict with the European Union's avowed intention to help combat climate change. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested earlier this year that carbon capture and storage at power plants could prove a critical part of any serious effort to restrain global warming. "We depend on removing large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere in order to bring concentrations well below 450 [parts-per-million] in 2100," said Ottmar Edenhofer, an economist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and co-chair of the IPCC's third working group, which was tasked with figuring out ways to mitigate climate change. Ultimately, he said, keeping a global temperature rise to 2 degrees without any CCS would require phasing out fossil fuels entirely within “the next few decades.”

Yet, from 2007 to 2013, global coal consumption increased from 6.4 billion to 7.4 billion metric tons, and coal use continues to rise. Although renewable energy sources like solar and wind are growing rapidly, they are doing so from a very small base and many energy analysts argue that it will be decades before they can supplant fossil fuels. The time and expense of building nuclear power plants — and public opposition — has also hampered that low-carbon technology's ability to replace coal burning. And biofuels or electric cars remain a long way from supplanting oil for transportation.

The Obama administration hopes to encourage the development of CO2 capture and use or storage. New rules from the Environmental Protection
NRG Energy and a partner firm are adding carbon capture to a coal-fired power plant near Houston.
Agency requiring a 30 percent cut in power plant emissions by 2030 may spur development of CCS technologies. Already, NRG Energy has partnered with a Japanese firm to add CO2 capture to a coal-fired power plant near Houston and use a pipeline to send the captured pollution to nearby oilfields. Dubbed Petra Nova, the $1 billion CCS project is the latest in a series of 19 CO2 capture projects underway or proposed in the U.S.

The bulk of such CO2 capture and storage experiments may soon shift to China, the world’s largest emitter of CO2. The Chinese and U.S. governments have a cooperative agreement to develop the technology, including partnerships between Chinese power companies like Huaneng and American corporations such as Summit Power, which is developing a CCS power plant in west Texas. In China, the long-awaited GreenGen power plant in Tianjin is still under construction and will capture CO2 for China's own efforts at enhanced oil recovery. But going forward, the expense of CCS may make the technology even more unpalatable in a developing country like China, which also has plans to turn coal into liquid fuels — a process that, from a climate perspective, is even worse than burning the dirty rock directly.

The technology to capture CO2 is relatively simple, and has been in use since the 1930s. For example, CO2 can be captured from the smokestacks of coal plants, natural gas plants, and even factories by routing the flue gases through an amine chemical bath, which binds the CO2. The chemical is then heated to release the CO2. The CO2 is pressurized to convert it to a liquid, and the liquid is then pumped via pipeline to an appropriate storage site. Those include underground geological formations, such as sandstones or saline aquifers, but also old oil fields, where the CO2 replaces the oil in small pores in the rock left behind by conventional methods and forces it up to the surface. Six percent of U.S. oil already comes from using enhanced oil recovery, a number that will increase, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Still, the economic and technological challenges facing CCS are daunting. Much-heralded projects like the CO2 capture and storage demonstration at the Mountaineer Power Plant in West Virginia were abandoned because no one wanted to pay for it. The hardware sits unused next to the hulking
The challenge is that capturing CO2 from a smokestack costs more than dumping it into the atmosphere.
power plant's smokestacks and cooling towers.

The ultimate challenge is that capturing CO2 from a smokestack costs more than simply dumping it into the atmosphere. Analysts say the simplest way to encourage less pollution and more CO2 capture would be to charge for the privilege of emitting CO2 by imposing a tax on carbon emissions. A price on CO2, if high enough, might make capturing the greenhouse gas look cheap.

Even if that policy change happens, the problem of storing all that CO2 remains, including concerns that the CO2 could escape back into the atmosphere or cause earthquakes. In Algeria, a test to store nearly 4 million metric tons of injected CO2 underground was halted after the gas raised the overlying rock and fractured it. Concerns over such induced seismicity or accidental releases of CO2 have blocked CCS plans in Europe, as have concerns over how to ensure the stored CO2 stays put for millennia.

But storing CO2 underground can work, as Norway’s Sleipner project in the North Sea has demonstrated. At Sleipner, which started capturing and storing CO2 in 1996, more than 16 million metric tons of CO2 have been put in an undersea sandstone formation; the project is funded by Norway’s carbon tax. And around the world, the potential storage resource is gargantuan. The U.S. alone has an estimated 4 trillion metric tons of CO2 storage capacity in the form of porous sandstones or saltwater aquifers, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Scientists at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and elsewhere are investigating just how vast the storage potential under the ocean could


As Uses of Biochar Expand,
Climate Benefits Still Uncertain

Research shows that biochar made from plant fodder and even chicken manure can be used to scrub mercury from power plant emissions and clean up polluted soil. The big question is whether biochar can be produced on a sufficiently large scale to slow or reverse global warming.
be. David Goldberg, a marine geophysicist at Lamont, proposes that liquid CO2 could be pumped offshore and injected into the ubiquitous basalt formations found off many of the world’s coastlines. When mixed with water, the CO2 leaches metals out of the basalt and forms a carbonate chalk, Goldberg explains.

“The goal of the whole CCS exercise is to take CO2, which is volatile, and put it in solid form where it will stay locked away forever,” he adds. Goldberg has calculated that just one such ridge site that runs the north-south length of the Atlantic Ocean could theoretically store all of humanity's excess CO2 emissions to date. “The magic of being offshore is that you are away from people and away from property.”

There is also basalt on land. In an experiment in Iceland, more than 80 percent of the injected CO2 interacted with the surrounding basalt and converted to rock in less than a year. A similar experiment in Washington State achieved similar results.

In the end, getting off fossil fuels entirely is the only way to control CO2 pollution. But until that happens, CCS could be vital to stave off catastrophic climate change. "Ultimately, we need a thermostat on this planet," says Klaus Lackner, a Columbia University physicist who is working on pulling the greenhouse gas directly out of the air rather than capturing it from smokestacks. "And we need to control the CO2."

Correction, September 9, 2014: Previous versions of this article misstated the amount of CO2 storage capacity in porous sandstones or saltwater aquifers in the U.S.; it is 4 trillion metric tons.

POSTED ON 08 Sep 2014 IN Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Climate Energy Energy Policy & Politics Science & Technology North America 


Look into how the CCS storage volumes are calculated. DOE uses models with unlimited boundaries, which is ridiculous, meaning that CO2 can be injected at the same rate until the storage volume is completely 'filled.' Essentially no boundary conditions. Add to this that, even using the storage capacities they calculate, a Canadian study found CCS storage volumes are actually only one-fifth what they have been calculating. All totally unreasonable assumptions, aside from the many unknowns.
Posted by C B on 08 Sep 2014

The only carbon pool with almost unlimited boundaries, no real unknowns and providing increasing value is Soil Carbon.

Many methods allow CO2 draw down to the soils. Afforestation, Ag Best Management Practices, (BMPs), Mob Grazing, Organic Ag, etc.

Biochar systems have so many market applications yet to be cultivated "Carbon Fodder" feeds for Livestock, Plant Chemical Communications, (plant signaling), even Char building materials such as Biochar-Plasters which block Cellphone signals, the potential markets are massive.

CoolPlanet's investors and CEOs project (assert) that they will be the first Trillion Dollar Company, based on their $1.50/Gal. cost to produce Bio-Gasoline.

For a complete review of the current science and industry applications of Biochar please see my 2014 Soil Science Society of America Biochar presentation. How thermal conversion technologies can integrate and optimize the recycling of valuable nutrients while providing energy and building soil carbon, I believe it brings together both sides of climate beliefs.
A reconciling of both Gods' and mans' controlling hands.

Agricultural Geo - Engineering Past, Present & Future
Across scientific disciplines carbons are finding new utility to solve our most vexing problems

2014 SSSA Presentation
Agricultural Geo-Engineering Past, Present & Future.

Posted by erich j. knight on 09 Sep 2014

Well, if this proves that carbon capture technology is the key to climate solution, then I'm happy for it and I'll support it.
Posted by Mike on 10 Sep 2014

Enhanced oil recovery with CO2 has been around since the seventies. All this hope on a rope stuff needs to kick it up a gear. It is time to do these things on a massive scale right now. Right Now!! Otherwise the hot air emanating from mouths mentioning empty hopes will heat the atmosphere beyond recovery.
Posted by Rob on 11 Sep 2014

I suggest there are promising breakthroughs on different techniques that appear to be much more cost effective. Let us hope they can scale up.

1. Canadian company, Inventys Thermal Technologies Inc., is bucking the trend in developing a technology that is less expensive to implement and shows considerable promise. So much promise in fact that the former U.S. Secretary of Energy under President Obama has decided to join the company’s board of directors. Dr. Chu is quoted as saying, “Carbon capture is a critical technology to move us to a clean energy future and Inventys has developed a practical, compact, and low cost system that allows existing fossil fuel power plants to dramatically lower their carbon emissions.” Inventys’ proprietary system is called Veloxo Therm(TM). It uses less energy to capture carbon, costs 80 percent less than competing technologies, and has a much smaller form factor when deployed in power plants.

2. http://news.rice.edu/2014/06/03/rice-produces-carbon-capture-breakthrough/: Porous material polymerizes carbon dioxide at natural gas wellheads

Rice University scientists have created an Earth-friendly way to separate carbon dioxide from natural gas at wellheads. A porous material invented by the Rice lab of chemist James Tour sequesters carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, at ambient temperature with pressure provided by the wellhead and lets it go once the pressure is released. The material shows promise to replace more costly and energy-intensive processes. Results from the research appear today in the journal Nature Communications.

3. Ship-in-a-bottle synthesis of amine-functionalized ionic liquids in NaY zeolite for CO2
capture: Yinghao Yu, Jingzhang Mai, Lefu Wang, Xuehui Li, Zheng Jiang & Furong Wang, Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 5997, doi: 10.1038/srep05997 08 August 2014

Posted by william Haaf on 11 Sep 2014

Rather than providing a stimulus for the petroleum industry (enhanced recovery), why not emphasize our divorce from dependence on carbon-based fuels? Our best plan for reducing atmospheric CO2 and other deleterious gases is to place a carbon fee on oil/gas wells, coal mines, and at ports of entry. The gradually increasing annual fee is calculated on potential CO2, expressed in tons, measured at the locations where the carbon-based fuel enters the market. That largely means at the sites of production (oil-gas wells, coal mines, and ports of entry). All monies are returned equally to households, thus the fee is revenue-neutral. This plan rapidly produces a stimulus for renewable energies, known for their relatively benign atmospheric effects, as we begin to slow the rate of climate change.
Clearly, we cannot control Global Warming in any reasonable scenario and it will run its natural course in terms of centuries or millennia. Details of the Fee-and-Dividend proposal can be found in documents from the Citizens Climate Lobby...
Posted by Donald H. Campbell on 11 Sep 2014

Does CCS (CO2 storage) not lead in future to higher levels of CO (dangerous), as O2 is taken out of the atmosphere?
Posted by Ric on 12 Sep 2014

We must stop burning all fossil fuels. www.skyscrubber.com shows how it can be done with existing coal burning power plants and current technologies.
Posted by David Nicholson on 13 Sep 2014

Don't think carbon fuel is going away any time soon — too distributed around cement plants and almost every other industrial process, and those aren't easily retrofitted to clean energy.

BUT, hoping there's scope to use at least some of the CO2 we make for good purposes. Came up with HCCAS idea, website at gas2green.org — it's got as far as Finalist in Climate CoLab, but I'm the first to admit there's a lot of work to be done to get there. Still seems a good idea to me. Check it out, feedback welcome!
Posted by Mark Everson on 15 Sep 2014

For around 30 years, gasoline was a waste product of kerosene production. The internal combustion engine became even more useful once it was developed to burn gasoline. Carbon dioxide continues to be thought of as a waste. While the efforts to sequester carbon dioxide are laudable, we should turn the page and look at it as a feedstock for materials. Many rightfully note we will continue to pump countless metric tons of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere thinking there will be no consequence. The root of the matter is economic. The atmosphere is free and just a smoke stack away as a waste field. Now about locking millions of metric tons into CO2 based polymers. Let's employ coal miners to fill abandoned mines with solid CO2. Better yet, innovate this idea of materials production using "waste" CO2 as the feedstock. Cell phone cases, concrete, carpet, you name it. The goal should be to replace fossil fuel based plastics with waste based plastics as a bridge to weaning us from carbon based fuels. It's a challenging but doable pathway to climate stabilization.
Posted by Christian Grieco on 16 Sep 2014

A large omission in this well written, but I would submit overly optimistic representation of CCS, concerns net energy. As extreme energy becomes more the norm, the amount of energy required to extract, refine, and convert those resources into usable energy increases, leaving less for investing in civilization. These returns have reduced from historical ratios of 100 to 1 to in the range of 30-15 to 1 for many liquid fossil fuels (i.e., not coal). This trend is at least partially responsible for many of the economic stresses felt around the world. There is less cheap energy to invest in activities outside the energy industry in the world, which is resulting in a contraction of many industries and economies. Adding CCS to this process reduces the usable net energy from fossil fuels by around 40 percent, which greatly undermines the desirability of such energy sources given their other unaccounted for negative externalities. Costs are not a good proxy for net energy returns often they are largely disconnected. Avoiding the discussion around net energy misses a key part of the debate around CCS.
Posted by Christopher Clement on 16 Sep 2014

Spraying water above the Great Basin playas, and having the entrained CO2 then react with the pool of pH 8.5 or higher which has formed on the surface, will capture CO2 directly from air at a very cheap rate. Importing (preferably) ocean water is not easily done, but it is not beyond current engineering prowess.

A "trial run" in the field could be effected by using water from the Carson Sink, to measure effectiveness.

Other details at WWW.EarthThrive.Net.

Posted by david o newell on 20 Nov 2014


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david bielloABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Biello is an associate editor at Scientific American, where he covers energy and the environment. He also hosts 60-Second Earth, a Scientific American podcast covering environmental news. In previous articles for Yale e360, Biello has written about the energy-saving potential of retrofitting buildings and guiding China's urban building boom with green design and smart growth.



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