Monday, 23 March 2015

Carbon Capture and Storage: more research, or none at all?

There is no doubt that the requirement to reduce emissions of CO2 will have a marked impact on the minerals industry, particularly on the viability of new ventures.
In last week's The Times, Matt Ridley argues that carbon dioxide is not the most urgent problem facing humanity, compared with war, extremism, poverty and disease. "But most presidents, popes and film stars think it is, so what is the best way of solving the problem?"
The science and technology committee of the House of Lords (on which Ridley sits) told the government in a recent report on the resilience of the electricity system that it has not sufficiently informed the public about the “trilemma” facing policymakers. We cannot — in the present state of technology — make the electricity supply low-carbon, resilient and low-cost all at the same time. Decarbonisation is not achievable if politicians wish to restrain energy prices.
Which leaves plan B: to continue using fossil fuels but extract the carbon dioxide from power station exhaust by “carbon capture and storage” (CCS).
There have been many research articles on CCS published lately, some in mineral processing journals, such as Minerals Engineering which recently published a special issue on the Accelerated Carbonation conference (ACEME 2013), which also aimed at promoting mineral carbonisation in the context of CCS and Carbon Capture and Utilisation.When the topic of CCS comes up, I, like Matt Ridley, admit to being unsure whom to believe. On the one hand there are those who say: it is ready to go, it solves the problem, what are we waiting for? On the other, those who say it’s a costly white elephant going nowhere.
Ridley argues that the first problem is that the process reduces the efficiency of the power station. "A normal coal-fired power station runs at about 35 per cent efficiency — that is to say, a bit more than a third of the heat energy in the steam gets turned into electricity. Adding CCS means that the efficiency drops to maybe 26 per cent. The cost correspondingly goes up substantially, as do people’s electricity bills." The British government has been dangling a £1 billion carrot in front of the energy industry to get CCS going but delays and cancellations are affecting CCS around the world. Given that electricity is only a small part of the energy system, if CCS is to solve our problems it has to roll out to not just every coal and gas power station on the planet, but to smelters, refineries and all operations generating large quantities of CO2.
Ridley concludes that there is no way to meet our self-imposed decarbonisation target without bankrupting the country. It’s not more effort and political will we need; it’s more research.
In response to this, Frederick Bellringer, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, felt that Matt Ridley was wrong in concluding that more research on CCS is required. He argued that carbon capture is a relatively straightforward but expensive technology. Storage, however, requires that liquid carbon dioxide has to be conveyed by pipeline to a suitable hole in the ground where it has to remain for ever. He said "In the UK we have apparently spent oil wells where this may be possible. Even in the UK the logistics of such an operation are formidable, but for the rest of the power stations throughout the world the logistical, political, technical and financial problems would be insurmountable." He concludes by saying "We do not require more research on CCS. We require a firm decision from our politicians that it is nonsense."
I know very little about this subject, so I do not wish to take sides in the argument. I would, however, like to have the opinions of those of you are involved with CCS: those who are researching this area and those of you who are affected by the need to implement such technology to reduce your carbon emissions.


  1. Basically all the debates come from our inconfidency in the future of our planet. We know CO2 is increasing in our atmosphere continuously, but not sure its consequence. Whether we should take actions or just do nothing? If some actions are required, when should we do, how can we do, who do it ? Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology is not mature, but it is a technology under development.
    Dr Yinghui Liu, Newcastle, Australia

  2. Here's a way of thinking about the problem.

    Today I asked the following question to my students on a test: "Explain how wastewater treatment mimics nature?". This question stems from the fact that wastewater treatment processes are accelerated versions of "treatment" processes that happen in nature: sedimentation, biological decomposition, adsorption, etc.

    What engineers have done is taken those natural processes and put them to work in plants all over the world. We could, rather, pipeline all wastewater to "storage" sites, such as lakes and oceans. In fact this is still done in many places. At first this works, but eventually the resulting environmental problems force us to find better solutions.

    The same story applies to CO2. In the case of CO2, the "storage" we are currently using is the atmosphere. Researchers are looking for underground storage sites, but this still constitutes storage, not treatment, and it's not how nature does it. Nature is used to "treating" CO2 via biomass growth at shorter time-scales, and via mineral carbonation at longer time-scales. Nature turns CO2 into minerals, hydrocarbons and organic molecules. Mimicking nature is therefore a reasonable solution to the CO2 problem.

    The challenge is that nature is much slower at treating CO2 than it is at treating sewage, hence engineers need to do much more "acceleration" to mimic nature at industrial time-scales. Evidently, this is a tough challenge to solve, and something actively being researched in the ACEME (accelerated carbonation for environmental and materials engineering) and CCU (carbon capture and utilization) communities.

    Rafael M. Santos
    ACEME 2013 Organizer
    Professor in Applied Chemical and Environmental Sciences
    Sheridan College Institute of Technology, Brampton, Canada

    1. Thanks Rafael. I like your analogy with wastewater treatment

  3. Views attributed to Matt Ridley and Frederick Bellringer underline the confusion that surrounds climate change risk management and the uncertainty as to climate change outcomes in the minds of the public and voters; even those that have a scientific background. Such narrow vision is regrettable and parallels some of the arguments raised by fossil fuel power generators with the goal of resisting rapid and necessary change. It is doubly regrettable because the fossil fuel power generators will be major beneficiaries of a shift to lower carbon intensity. And they do not have to be subsidised with tax-payer money to achieve it.

    In my view the technologies needed to dramatically reduce carbon intensity, including CCS, are available today. In addition the most sensible solution to climate change risk includes maintaining access to fossil fuel power generation; the climate risk problem is not caused by burning coal and gas, it is caused by releasing the associated CO2 to the atmosphere and thereby to the seas. The notion that adding CCS reduces the efficiency and net generating capacity of a power station is quite wrong; it can be done without affecting power station performance other than in eliminating its CO2 emissions.

    A narrow examination of the cost of CCS will conclude it to be expensive; examination of the potential consequences and costs of climate change, and the uncertainty (which includes that the outcome might be worse than predicted) indicates those impacts will far outweigh the cost of CCS; impacts will not only be rising temperature and sea levels but also a rise in refugees displaced by lack of food and water, damage to cities and infrastructure by extreme weather and increased geopolitical instability.

    Neither fossil fuel use nor CCS need be forever, but they both need to be for now and the next 50+ years. CCS needs to start now, not after the next election, not in 5 years time, but now.

    Governments should encourage the new technologies of a low-carbon future by participating in international agreements and setting legislation such that private sector solutions are encouraged; this is governments' job and government can and should provide the necessary framework without use of tax-payer funded subsidies. The reality is that low-carbon energy technologies including CCS, in addition to combating climate change, will underpin development of a new energy industry sector worldwide. Consumers ultimately meet the costs of CCS in the goods that they need to buy, but they will find those cost affordable because the shift to low carbon energy outcomes, with the proper vision and commitment, will serve them well. Massive investment is needed for this transition and rather than being a burden it will create a new industrial activity with profitable businesses, jobs, economic growth, higher standards of living, greater equality and less poverty.

    Problems are not solved by waiting for perfect solutions and certain outcomes - it's time for government and the private sector to do their respective jobs and for the end consumers to show both sectors what they expect through the ballot box, their purchase decisions and their investment decisions. Sensible solutions exist, we need to use them.

    Charles U Jones
    Resources&Energy Evolutions
    Melbourne Australia

    1. Thanks Charles. An excellent response to The Times discussions


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