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CCS – Adding value

That change is occurring in our climate should now be obvious to us all, that the activities of mankind is responsible for some of it is also very likely. However, whether mankind is responsible for all of it, the jury is still out. That human beings may just inhabit our planet at a time of climate change of its own and of external solar influence’s making is also a possibility. Sadly, it may be just that the time for us collectively to do anything that we could to halt, slow or even reverse a trend is gone. With the tipping point, wherever it was past, we may simply have to hunker down and make the best of what we have and what is to come. Ian McInnes considers adding value to carbon capture and storage.

With many of the world’s economies bracing for a what could be a double-dip recession, climate change initiatives are likely to take a backseat in government spending and attain an “only if viable” stance with industry. The UK government in its recent cancellation of the GBP1bn+ carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration project at Longannet in Scotland said that it was to ensure that taxpayer’s money was invested in the best possible way for CCS. “CCS is a key technology for the UK’s long-term energy strategy. A billion pounds is enough to demonstrate this vital new technology in the UK, but it’s got to be spent in the most effective way,” said Chris Huhne, UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in a statement. “Despite everyone working extremely hard, we’ve not been able to reach a satisfactory deal for a project at Longannet at this time, so we’ve taken the decision to pursue alternative projects.”

The UK government was slammed by Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland at the recent Scottish National Party conference as new jobs around Fife look to be going south of the border. Salmond could suspect that the UK government decision was something to do with the SNP’s push for independence but it was probably far more likely more to do with spending over GBP1bn on a CCS project that was nice to have but not something you would spend your money on if you were hungry. With emissions targets agreed at a better economic time, it would not be a surprise to see targets missed or for governments to come clean and to say that they either cannot, or indeed, will not meet them with the global economy in crisis. Yes, the UK could potentially develop a CCS solution and become a leader for perhaps an expensive technology that no one wants.

Making CCS attractive

Alberta, Canada, has become a North American leader in CCS more out of necessity than desire as the province is constantly beleaguered by “dirty oil” tags on what is, probably the world’s second largest oil reserves, the oil sands. Alberta was reportedly the first to put a price on carbon emissions and is committing CAD2bn with industry on four large CCS projects in the province. However, CCS to industry in Alberta with the price of CAD15/t charge on industrial carbon emissions makes CCS a tough sell. Companies pay the charge rather than invest in CCS, while the provincial government is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Raise the carbon levy to make CCS attractive would likely cause industrial investors to invest in other projects outside of the province. There are no national or North American agreements for carbon cap-and-trade at the moment although talks are underway for four provinces and five US states on a western climate initiative that could be in place sometime in 2012.

Rather than simply store carbon emissions it is far better to actually cut the emissions as far as possible as far as efficiency and cost allow and actually do something positive with it. Enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and enhanced gas recovery (EGR) are not new technologies and where practical and viable injecting carbon dioxide (CO2) into an oil and/or gas well can squeeze out more production.

Adding value

Then there is the application of more innovation. It is early days but there are signs that perhaps algae may become a CCS solution. A reported research breakthrough at the University of Kentucky has led to an increased funding for a technology that uses algae to capture CO2 from coal burning power plants and convert it to biomass. Over the next two years, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet will invest around US$1.3m to the University of Kentucky Centre for Applied Energy Research (CAER) at East Kentucky Power Cooperative’s Dale Power Station in Winchester, Ky. The demonstration will resemble a football-sized field of vertical photobioreactor tubes with a constant, no water loss, flow of algae and water. The algae will be harvested as it settles into a tank and removed as a paste. From there on the algae could be converted into other products such as biodiesel, animal feed, fertiliser and chemicals.

In China too, a report has surfaced about what is presumably a similar technology. The US based Accelergy Corp. is to provide the Yankuang Group with its TerraSync terrestrial sequestration system to capture carbon from a new coal-to-liquids facility in Erdos, Inner Mongolia. The carbon will be captured by a Fischer Tropsch system to be provided by Yankuang, and similar to the University of Kentucky project, into a series of algae producing photobioreactor tubes with the resulting algae to be harvested and then blended to be used as fertiliser. “We aim to increase coal utilisation efficiency, reduce CO2 emission and add to the development of an integrated circular economy,” said Zhang Minglin, vice general manager of Yankuang Group Co in a statement. “This is in line with China’s high-tech coal chemical development trend, and complies with China’s energy saving and environmental protection policies as well.”

Can a workable CCS solution be really as simple as growing algae? It will be interesting to see how the projects in Kentucky and Inner Mongolia work out. If all turns out well than there should be no need to spend billions of dollars to put CO2 in the ground if it can be used in a circular process to create other value-added products.

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