Hide the Carbon!

November 1, 2006

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The idea of carbon capture and sequestration, a promising avenue for reducing existing emissions, has been around for years. The process consists of capturing industrial CO2 emissions and burying them deep below the ground. Now several large-scale carbon dioxide sequestration tests are about to begin in the U.S.

The results, slated to become known in 2009, will give the process industry a much better idea of whether or not this is a viable method of dealing with such emissions.

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Assistant Secretary Jeffrey D. Jarrett yesterday announced the Department's support of seven tests in North America to advance carbon sequestration technologies. DOE will provide more than $450 million over the next 10 years "to validate that the capture, transportation, injection and long-term storage of carbon dioxide (CO2) can be done safely, permanently and economically.

"Carbon sequestration will play a key role in the United States' effort to mitigate climate change and holds the key to the continued environmentally-responsible use of coal," Jarrett said.

The idea of carbon capture and sequestration, which has been around for years, is pretty simple: extract hydrogen from fossil fuels such as coal, oil or natural gas, and shove the carbon dioxide byproducts into a deep, dark hole in the ground. The result is cleaner fuel — the only byproduct of burning hydrogen is water — and more efficient use of our natural resources.

The efficiency of the process cuts in from both ends of the equation: 1) We get to squeeze more use out of the fossil fuels we have around, and even out of some byproducts that go to waste entirely today; and 2) the carbon dioxide can be pumped back into nearly dry oil and gas wells, helping to push out any useful materials still left in there that are unreachable by conventional means.

Carbon dioxide produced by today's coal or oil power plants can also be sequestered.

The hideaway method is estimated to reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 90 percent, and applying that technique to power generation can reduce global emissions substantially. Of all greenhouse gases today, 40 percent is produced by electricity generation.

Moreover, the distilled hydrogen can also be used in fuel cells. Those next-generation batteries convert hydrogen into electricity without burning it.

Illinois, western Indiana and western Kentucky alone are responsible for more that 255 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from stationary sources in the U.S. every year, according to European Press Engineer magazine. Such sources include electric power plants, refineries, cement plants and other industrial facilities.

So the Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium (MGSC) was created in an effort to find a solution. Today it is one of seven regional carbon sequestration partnerships funded by the U.S. DOE Office of Fossil Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). (We realize that is a mouthful…much like "carbon capture and sequestration" is.)

MGSC is a consortium of the geological surveys of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky joined by private corporations, professional business associations, the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, two Illinois state agencies and university researchers to assess carbon capture, transportation and storage processes, and their costs and viability, in the three-state Illinois Basin region.

While the idea of carbon capture and sequestration may be simple, following through has been far from it.

Pumping the gas down deep enough takes a lot of pressure and is very expensive, so the challenge is to make the technique economically feasible.

The latest partnerships have been working to characterize their regions' opportunities and existing infrastructure for carbon sequestration. Results obtained from these large-volume sequestration tests will be crucial to the development of DOE's FutureGen power plant, which will produce both hydrogen and electricity from a highly efficient and technologically sophisticated coal-fired power plant, and do so without emissions. The geologic structures that will be tested during these large volume sequestration tests could be candidate sites for FutureGen-like plants.

Pumping liquid carbon dioxide underground on a massive scale has been talked about for years, and, in fact, the process has already been carried out in several locations around the world with success.

However, the process still requires a certain number of tests to prove its technical feasibility, its cost effectiveness and the sustainability of underground storage.

Air Liquide is one MGSC member that has developed a high level of expertise in the field of CO2 sequestration. Already a partner in several research projects in this field, Air Liquide is extending its role within the MGSC project. Air Liquide's R&D center in Countryside, Illinois, has been working on a pioneering CO2 sequestration project since 2003. Now a new phase in this project has begun, consisting of six real-scale CO2 injection tests that will last until 2009.

Air Liquide is to provide 19,000 tons of liquid CO2 to be injected during these tests, as well as storage tanks for the CO2. The company will also provide its expertise in the design of the injection skid and assistance in analyzing the results to ensure that the buried CO2 will remain trapped in the deep geological layers.

DOE will work with the existing regional carbon sequestration partnerships and more than 300 partners from industry, academia, federal and state governments, and national laboratories to develop these large volume sequestration tests.

Howard Herzog, an MIT chemical engineer and the program manager of the Carbon Sequestration Initiative, an industrial consortium, recently told Technology Review that the most recent international conference on the subject — in Trondheim, Norway, earlier this year — made clear two things: First, the geological questions are being resolved favorably. Second, without policies that put a price on CO2, it is unlikely that any sequestration facilities will actually get built.

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