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Science on the Hill: Jumpstarting the Carbon Capture Industry
  U.S., China

Monday, October 12, 2015

Carbon capture, utilization, and storage can provide a crucial bridge between our current global energy economy and a cleaner, more diversified energy future. Researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Ohio State University and the National Energy Technology Laboratory have demonstrated that this approach is technically feasible and poised for full-scale roll-out.

Carbon capture involves diverting and compressing byproduct carbon dioxide gas (CO2) at the flue of coal-fired power plants and other emitters and subsequently transporting it in dedicated pipelines for injection into deep geologic reservoirs. As an alternative to this last step, manufacturers can use CO2 gas to make marketable products. Either way, this approach could prevent millions of tons of industrial greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere every year as we strive to combat anthropogenic climate change.

Although high-profile projects have demonstrated that technologies for carbon capture, utilization, and storage supply are commercially viable, CO2 gas capture technology has lagged behind. To address skepticism about the economic viability of CO2 capture, the Los Alamos–led research team studied a carbon-capture business model. The work was part of the Advanced Coal Technology Consortium, one of three research threads — along with building energy efficiency and clean vehicles — that are part of a $150 million research and development initiative of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center.

Coal-fired power plants, with high CO2 emissions, might seem a natural target for carbon capture, but to date the costs are prohibitive. So the team chose a different approach. They explored capturing CO2 from the stacks of ethylene manufacturing plants that use natural gas to make plastic bags and packaging. The plants are clustered along the U.S. Gulf Coast near a heavy concentration of oil production facilities that can extract up to 15 percent more oil by injecting CO2 and water into tapped reservoirs. The process, called enhanced oil recovery, creates a local market where the ethylene plants can sell their byproduct CO2 to offset the costs of CO2 capture. On the environmental side, capturing CO2 emitted from ethylene manufacture and using that CO2 for enhanced oil recovery lowers the carbon footprint by approximately one third of the total emissions that would have been released to the atmosphere.

Although the team’s study was theoretical, it demonstrated that large, clustered sources of ethylene coupled with the high demand for CO2 in enhanced oil recovery could support an integrated pipeline network from New Mexico to the Gulf region and Mississippi. Such a network would prove the economic viability of carbon capture, utilization and storage for climate-change mitigation. It might also spark projects in places like Alberta, Canada, where oil sands production has a larger CO2 footprint compared to typical U.S. oil production. In fact, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Chinese Academy of Sciences are actively developing a similar analysis to capture CO2 from Chinese industrial production sources such as for iron, steel, coal, cement and a variety of chemicals, all of which combined emit hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 annually. The implications are global. The same model that involves a collaboration between a high-value-product manufacturer selling captured CO2 and a business that creates a market-viable product can be expanded to a wide array of industries.

The world’s economy will not wean itself from fossil fuels in the near future. Implementing carbon capture, however, offers a path forward toward less CO2-intensive energy sources, while maximizing the benefits of our existing energy infrastructure. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent commitment to a nationwide greenhouse-gas cap-and-trade program can create economic incentives to stimulate widespread adoption of carbon capture from coal plants in China. In the United States, a large, commercially viable, and fully integrated CO2 capture capability could result in industry “buy-in” through cost-effectiveness and new business models for byproduct CO2 capture. President Obama has signed agreements with President Xi and his predecessor that will help the two countries work together on this important issue.

Global climate stressors require mitigation. Carbon capture offers a viable solution to reducing greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. China and India are committed to coal-fired electric plants for decades. While other industrial nations are increasing their share of renewable energy, fossil fuels will remain economic drivers for decades. It is therefore vital to reduce their environmental impact by jumpstarting the carbon-capture industry with a large-scale, visible and financially viable carbon-capture network. (The New Mexican)

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