By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Carbon capture isn’t as sexy as renewable energy, or as simple to understand as a wind turbine. There is plenty of mind-numbing chemistry and technical engineering involved, and it provokes conflicting opinions about its feasibility.
Capturing carbon emissions and storing them permanently is complicated, mostly because of the numerous methods being sought to accomplish it: pump it underground; siphon it off from power plants; grow more plants.
None of these approaches are viable on a large scale, as cost and added energy consumption, so far, outweigh the benefits. Most global greenhouse gas-reduction goals, however, count on carbon capture to cut climate-changing emissions.
Recent carbon dioxide rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) require new coal power plants to capture 20 percent of carbon emissions by 2050. To get there, federal funds keep pouring into large sequestration projects, such as the controversial $6.2 billion Kemper County coal power plant in Mississippi.
There are plenty of uses for CO2, such as making beer and soda fizzy. Fossil-fuel extraction is a major user. Several carbon dioxide pipelines — powered by fossil fuels — run across the South and West to deliver manufactured and natural CO2 to oil and gas wells. The carbon dioxide stays captive in the site after it helps pump out the oil and gas.
Finding ways of supplying some of that CO2 from existing carbon sources is a one of the main markets in the emerging, and broadly defined, field of carbon capture and storage (CCS).
“CO2 is everywhere, but it has not really been harnessed,” said Emily Cole, co-founder of Liquid Light, a New Jersey-based startup that wants to reduce greenhouse gasses by transforming carbon dioxide into industrial chemicals.
Cole made the remark as one of several experts from startups, academia and established companies such as Praxair and Proctor & Gamble who discussed CCS emerging technologies at a Brown University forum in January called “CO2: From Waste to Worth.”
Enhanced Energy Group of West Kingstown is also looking at cutting emissions from the oil and gas industry, while increasing production. Its founder, Paul Dunn, spent 25 years designing engines for the Navy, some of which were emissions free. He’s now building power sources that sequester CO2 before it vents into the air.
There are a myriad of applications for non-emissive power, and a semi-closed cycle micro grid could support institutions with onsite power plants, like hospitals and universities, that want to curb air pollution. So far, one of the few customers with consistent demand for CO2 is the oil and gas industry. Fossil fuel drillers need CO2 for pumping remnant oil or gas from a well, a process called enhanced oil recovery (EOR). Although oil drilling and fracking isn’t necessarily good for the environment, the operations require lots of CO2 and diverting their emissions underground prevents it from otherwise flowing into the atmosphere.
Running an engine and capturing the CO2, called semi-closed cycle, also creates water and other byproducts that have a beneficial use. So the engines have opportunities beyond EOR. At this stage of developnent the power systems are getting attention from investors. Enhanced Energy Group has so far received $250,000 in state and federal funds through the Providence-based Slater Technology Fund. And Dunn anticipates an additional round of investment from other groups in the months ahead.
Thorne Sparkman, managing director of the Slater Fund, called non-emissive power "the Holy Grail on the generation side." But where that power generation is still based on fossil-fuel combustion, he said, emissions reduction comes from sequestration, or, better yet from reuse of carbon dioxide. Both are necessary to make power plants financially sustainable, he said. "Nowhere is the demand for power greater, and the co-located demand for CO2 more prevalent, than in the oil patch.”
Thus, companies like Enhanced Energy Group will be part of the decades-long transition from fossil fuels to renewables.
"The path to low carbon may just flow through these (fossil fuel-related) industries. It’s not just going to be all wind and solar," Sparkman said.
Bioprocess Algae is converting unwanted CO2 into algae for fish and animal feed, and as nutritional supplements. The company recently relocated its headquarters from Portsmouth, R.IU., to Shenandoah, Iowa, to be closer its CO2 supply source, a corn-fueled ethanol plant.
Chief technology officer Toby Ahrens said it’s not likely that sequestering carbon dioxide in algae will make a significant impact on cutting overall emissions, even if there was an algae farm near every power plant.
“But, the opportunity, it’s one of the only profitable solutions out there,” Ahrens said.
Brown University researchers and students also are addressing carbon sequestration through green chemistry. The university’s Center for the Capture and Conversion of CO2 (C4) is researching two approaches. The first is drawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create the basic building materials for plastics used in everyday items such as paints, Plexiglas and disposable diapers. The new commodity chemicals would replace petroleum-based products and reduce atmospheric CO2. Large chemical users, such as DOW and BASF, would use the green feedstock to shrink their carbon footprint.
C4’s other focus is to convert carbon dioxide into fuel. As a stored energy, the fuel could power on-demand electricity in the emerging smart-grid technology arena and eventually provide power when solar and wind energy can’t meet demand.
“There’s plenty of atmospheric CO2, most you don’t need,” said Tayhas Palmore, a professor of engineering and director of the C4. “The best way to use it is to convert it to something of value.”
Funded by the National Science Foundation, C4 is a research center focused on providing data for established companies and startups, perhaps launched by students or researchers.
“I think it’s pretty early on, but it’s a hot topic in basic research and a lot of people are looking at it,” Palmore said.
CCS critics say the billions and even trillions of investment required to make it widely adopted would be better spent on proven technologies such as wind and solar. Supporters say better policies will drive demand and bring prices down for the technology.
The keynote speaker at the Brown University forum in January, Richard Sandor, believes the expansion of carbon cap-and-trade programs would drive the industry. Sandor, who has designed financial exchanges that focus on the environment, was dubbed the “father of carbon trading” by Time magazine. He believes a national cap-and trade-program will eventually take root even, after the last one failed in Congress, in 2009.
“It’s not dead. It’s only dead in Washington, D.C.,” Sandor said.
All of these efforts seem possible, but Vicki Colvin, the former provost at Brown University, said there isn’t much time to act.
“The thing we need to think about if we’re going to continue to have the lifestyles we have, to have the kinds of cities, the kinds of houses we enjoy today, we have to think about what is going to happen in the next 10 to 20 years, how we make rapid change,” Colvin said.