CO2 Capture Technology That May Surprise You (Video)

CO2 Capture Technology That May Surprise You

This video focuses on CO2 capture technology that may surprise you

Carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is the leading long-term cause of climate change. The atmospheric concentration of this greenhouse gas has increased by 48 per cent since humans started burning fossil fuels.1 Yet, even today, it makes up only about 0.04 per cent of our atmosphere.2 This makes it difficult to develop CO2 capture technology to directly remove the gas from the air.3

Instead, the majority of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies aim to prevent CO2 from entering the atmosphere in the first place. Therefore, they are most commonly fitted to power plants and industrial facilities, which produce a high composition of CO2.4 CO2 consists of about four per cent of the flue gas from natural gas-fired plants and 15 per cent from coal-fired exhausts. Nevertheless, capturing CO2 remains technically challenging as it is hard to separate from accompanying nitrogen and hydrogen.5  

Carbon dioxide capture, how close are we to getting there?

Regardless of the obstacles, billions of dollars continue to pour into developing CO2 capture technology. After decades of research, articles continue to hail CCS as “on the verge of becoming reality”.6

Over 300 startups worldwide are working to develop different CCS technologies. Some are turning to surprising methods and approaches in the elusive attempt to capture and sequester CO2.

Why is there so much interest in CO2 carbon capture technology?

Fossil fuel companies and CCS

Fossil fuel companies promote CCS as an excuse to continue producing more oil, coal and natural gas. They help to keep interest in the sector high. As critics note, they “do not necessarily need carbon capture technology to work. They just need it to appear to work”.7 The promise of CCS provides them with time to carry on extracting more dirty fossil fuels. It also makes it appear that they are helping to find a solution to climate change. For these reasons, oil giants have been investing huge sums of money into CCS.

For example, ExxonMobil’s website states that it has investments in about 20 per cent of the world’s carbon capture capacity. It claims to have captured more CO2 than any other company on the planet. This amounts to more than 40 per cent of all CO2 humans have captured.8 Furthermore, ExxonMobil is also investing an additional USD $3 billion in low emission energy solutions, namely CCS.9 

Likewise, Chevron has spent over USD $54 billion on its Gorgon liquified natural gas plant with CCS facilities. This is USD $20 billion over its initial budget.10 The plant is the largest CO2 sequestration project in the world.11 However, the plant has been beset by issues. In March 2021, there were calls for the plant to be shut down. Greenhouse gas emissions from the facility were actually increasing due to the CCS system not working properly.12 Yet, governments around the world still court CCS capture technology as a viable climate change solution.

The IPCC, and carbon capture and storage

Various governments have been supportive of CCS initiatives. Much of their interest is thanks to the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Their findings collate the research of thousands of contributors from all over the world.13 The report outlines the importance of restricting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-Industrial levels. It also offers a roadmap to achieving this goal. Part of it involves deploying large-scale CO2 capture technology.14

Carbon capture and global warming

It is certainly true that preventing CO2 from entering the air would help prevent additional global warming. CCS is most useful for hard-to-decarbonise industries which produce large quantities of the greenhouse gas. However, proponents of CCS fail to acknowledge the technology’s shortcomings. 

For example, the IPCC estimates that CCS projects need to capture 1.5 gigatonnes of CO2 each year by 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5°C. However, the current annual capacity of large-scale CCS projects is just 40 million tonnes of CO2. An increase by a factor of 35 is needed to meet the target set by the IPCC. Furthermore, large-scale CCS projects take between six and 10 years to complete.15 This is without delays, setbacks and obstacles. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that CO2 capture technology can provide significant climate mitigation in the next decade.

The new, acoustic-assisted CO2 capture technology for coal-fired power plants

One of the ingenious new attempts to develop CO2 capture technology is through an acoustic-assisted process. A University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER) team aims to improve their current CO2 capture system. At present, an absorption column and solvents absorb CO2 from the combustion flue gas of a fossil fuel power plant. However, the team believes that they can use acoustic-driven packing material to enhance its absorption.16 

Their device transmits high-frequency acoustic energy into the absorber column. This makes both the column and any solvent in contact with it vibrate. Consequently, the absorption rate improves.17

This technology must integrate with full-scale CCS facilities to be a possible benefit for the sector. If it can improve the mass transfer in the absorber column by 30 per cent, a 26 per cent saving would be made in capital construction costs. But, a suitably-sized packed absorber column costs about USD $85 million.18 Therefore, this is only possible with large-scale projects, such as those funded by fossil fuel companies.

Avoiding CO2 capture technology by trapping emissions in raw cement blocks

It is also possible to trap CO2 emissions in cement blocks, removing the need for CO2 capture technology entirely. A university team led by a professor at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering perfected the technique. They have won USD $7.5 million in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE global competition for their efforts.19

This new technology uses CO2 emissions from power plants and other industrial facilities. But, instead of allowing them to enter the Earth’s atmosphere, the UCLA team can infuse them into a new type of concrete. This traps and sequesters the carbon. It reduces the carbon footprint of concrete production by more than 50 per cent. The carbon it produces is equally strong and durable as that made using traditional methods.20

Each concrete block stores roughly three-quarters of a pound of CO2.21 A test of the process in March produced over 5,000 concrete blocks. They captured 75 per cent of the CO2 from both coal and natural gas flue gas. The potential for this technology is enormous.22 

Currently, the world produces at least 20 billion tonnes of concrete annually. This results in about 10 per cent of worldwide emissions.23 Moreover, this market is growing at a rate of around eight per cent each year.24 Reducing the emissions of such a huge industry in a cost-efficient and practical manner could have major repercussions in the fight against climate change.

Other ways concrete can capture CO2

Various companies are trying to reduce the emissions of concrete production using CO2 capture technology. For instance, Blue Planet makes carbonate rocks using CO2. It saves energy in comparison to most CO2 capture techniques, as it does not require a purification step. These rocks replace limestone rock, which is most commonly used to create concrete. Therefore, it saves further energy as there is no need to mine any limestone. Using Blue Stone’s concrete can subsequently massively reduce the carbon footprint of a construction project.25

What is most surprising about CO2 capture technology?

The most surprising thing about CO2 capture technology is the interest and funding it continues to attract. Many of its flagship projects have cost billions of dollars. Yet, some – like Chevron’s Gorgon gas project – fail to operate properly. Like the Mississippi Kemper coal plant, others have been closed entirely, despite USD $7.5 billion in investment.26 

Moreover, after decades of research, investment and promises, there are just 19 large-scale power plants with CCS facilities operating worldwide. Of these, only four are not using their captured CO2 to produce more oil, which releases further CO2.27 This is because fossil fuel companies are the biggest proponents of CO2 capture technology. Their motivation is to make more money by producing more fossil fuels. The innovative ways that startups are capturing CO2 provide some hope for the sector. But ultimately, this technology cannot be relied upon to save us from the effects of climate change.


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