Carbon Capture and Storage – too expensive to save humanity?
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) can be practised in two ways, naturally and mechanically. The natural approach is much about planting additional trees, algae in the sea or even the most giant creatures on earth, whales, contribute to natural CCS by consuming massive amounts of carbon within their lifespan of up to a century. The mechanical procedure mainly focusses on capturing waste CO2 from abundant point sources, such as cement factories or biomass power plants (for more detailed information on biomass check out our blog post Biomass – Renewable Energy by burning our forests?).
One of the first papers you will ever discover on the internet is from the founder of a partner blog of ours and dates back to the year 1991. In 1988 the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, organized one of the world’s first international conferences on carbon capture and removal. The 48 participants were from 15 different countries, including the USA, USSR, India, China, Japan and 10 European countries. Aviott was a conference participant and co-authored a summary of its five workshop sessions in the Journal ENERGY in 1991. The five courses were: (i) global and regional studies of carbon emissions, (ii) national surveys, (iii) efficiency improvements and CO2 scrubbing, (iv) low and zero-carbon options, and (v) global issues & integration. Aviott has been a passionate advocate of renewable energy and sustainable living since this time, and this interest is reflected in his blog at aviott.org.
Thanks to thought leaders like Aviott, the last decade of the 20th century was the kick-start of a promising technology to reverse the CO2 emissions humanity has emitted so far.
To start with the natural carbon capture and storage, we have been overwhelmed by the mass of day-to-day use-cases of this simple technology. To sum up, natural CCS has existed long before any human being has set foot on earth solely by plants using CO2 for photosynthesis to grow and emit oxygen as a byproduct. Nowadays, we take advantage of this effect by setting up vertical gardens in cities like London, Berlin, Hong Kong, etc.; made of moss. Those city benches absorb as much pollution as 275 trees in 1 per cent of the space. Talking about trees, not being as efficient as moss in capturing the carbon, nevertheless, trees are still playing a vital role within the carbon balance puzzle. It might sound naive and optimistic to say that planting trees has the potential to solve the climate crisis. Yet, a study has found that planting an enormous amount of trees, at land not being used at all, could store the equivalent of 25% of the current atmospheric carbon pool. If you are wondering how many trees are required to do so – it’s the equivalent of ~1 billion acres or a trillion trees. Hence, there is no time to lose, get out and plant a tree!
The technological way of CCS takes place at massive industrial factories or power plants emitting CO2, directly capturing CO2 out of the air or via thermal decomposition of biomass in the absence of oxygen. Carbon Dioxide can be captured, or stored, using a variety of technologies, e.g. (i) absorption, (ii) adsorption, (iii) chemical looping, (iv) membrane gas separation or, (v) pyrolysis. The potential is sheerly incredible as CCS applied to a modern biomass power plant could reduce CO2 emissions by approx. 80 – 90%. On the other hand, the profitability of this same biomass power plant/cement factory would suffer by increased levelized cost of energy of 21 – 90%, which would result in a loss-making business case.
A more promising way to capture carbon in the long term, while producing renewable energy, bio-oil and syngas, is to produce biochar via pyrolysis. Biochar is a charcoal-like fine-grained residue substance of agricultural and forestry wastes which have been burned under strict temperature monitoring and the absence of oxygen. This way, organic materials, such as wood leaf litter or dead plants, transform into biochar by releasing little or no contaminating fumes, instead of breaking down into carbon dioxide within a decade or two. Depending on the temperature, residence time, and heating rate, the outcome differs significantly. These parameters can be optimized to produce either energy or biochar. Temperatures of 400 – 500 degrees Celsius produce more char, whereas temperatures above 700 degrees Celsius favour the yield of liquid and gas fuel components.
Biochar is very stable and can hold onto its carbon for hundreds or thousands of years. Besides, it can be used as a soil fertilizer to enhance the fruitfulness of agricultural grounds. Furthermore, several studies estimate that biochar could sequester as much as 12% of global CO2 emissions, which equals the total emissions of the worldwide transport sector.
One of many innovative biochar projects is Stockholms Cities100 – Worlds First Urban Carbon Sink with Biochar. As a result, they are turning the cities park and garden waste into renewable energy for heating while sequestering carbon.
Will CCS get us a significant step closer towards sequestering all the men-made CO2 emissions?
Carbon capture and storage is absolutely essential if we are to have a chance of meeting the Paris targets
That’s what we think, Richard. Let’s push this technology!