2030! 12 years is the time We have to avoid catastrophic environmental breakdown according to the recent United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published in October. To prevent that, the most ambitious plan conceived in the COP21 should be implemented and fulfilled.

More than limiting the CO2 emissions, reducing and controlling those is key to achieve survival and the Carbon Capture (CC) technologies are being called out to play, probably the most important role on this mission – net zero to negative emissions. But what progress has been made in this sector? Is CCS technologies ready to be deployed? Is it going to be enough?

In 2016, I wrote an article about Carbon Capture Technologies and on its biggest constraints (read here). On the following lines I will try to update that article and give a fresh look on what’s new on this sector

Ongoing large-scale projects

In 2016 there were 15 large-scale projects operating around the world, responsible for extracting 28 Million tons of CO2 per year from the Atmosphere. Most of those are placed in North America. At the time of the last article, 7 more were expected to go online by 2017 extracting 12 million tons more.

According to recent reports from the Global CCS Institute, only 2 projects went online in 2017 and one in 2018 (the first in China) with four more expected to be online by the end of 2020. All summed up we are talking about a total carbon dioxide capture of 38.6 Million tons every year.

Curiously, the oil industry is being benefiting considerably as most of carbon dioxide captured by CCS units is used to optimize oil extraction in a process called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). 70% of the projects currently operating captures CO2, normally from the after product of Natural gas processing or fertiliser production, and injected it in underground wells pulling out crude. The second most used kind of storage is a dedicated geological reservoir, where CO2 is compressed and stored permanently.

One of the most famous projects is PETRA NOVA in Texas. It is responsible for capturing 1.4 million tons of CO2 per year alone from the air with a capture efficiency of 90%. Basically, the carbon dioxide is captured, compressed and piped to an Oil field 82 miles away where is used in an EOR process. Before the CCS system existed, the oil field pumped about 300 barrel per day and now it can go up to 15 000 barrels per day.

PETRA NOVA is also one of the most successful projects so far in the industry of CCS since it is the most viable economically speaking.

Canada was the first country to install a Post-Combustion type CCS technology on a large-scale power plant (a coal power plant to be more precise) with the project “Boundary Dam Carbon Capture and Storage”. This capture system detains 90% of the CO2 from coal burning piping it into a reservoir underground and then sell it to an oil company to be used in oil extraction (EOR). The project started running in 2014 and is responsible to avoid 1 Million tons per year of carbon dioxide.

Along with the examples stated before, from 2020 to 2030, 18 more large-scale projects are expected to be up and “sequestering” 26.8 Million tons of CO2 per year.

Breakthrough Tech

Other approach used in the past years for CC technology was to capture CO2 from power plants. CO2Solutions and Climeworks are two companies that are breaking barriers of new technologies and approaches seeking for more commercial solutions.

CO2SOLUTIONS is a Canadian Company that is in the final stage of assembling its first commercial carbon capture technology in a greenhouse in Quebec, Canada. According to the description, its capture process does not require nor produces toxic products. Their approach is to use in their industrial process, the carbonic anhydrase (CA) enzyme, known for being the most powerful catalyst for carbon management in nature, at a competitive cost. The applications of their technology can vary from storage, reuse or just purify the atmosphere.

CLIMEWORKS is a Swiss based company responsible for the development of a filter that captures CO2 which is heated when achieves the saturation point. From this process CO2 is collected as a after product that can be stored, used or commercialized and the CO2 free air is realized back to the atmosphere. They’ve opened recently their third carbon capture sequestration plant.

This technology can be assembled in industrial plants, green houses and by being modular and scalable it can be adapted to the size of the industry. The biggest constraint of this direct-air type of technology is their cost: 600 USD$ a tonne.

Probably the best new so far in terms of cost reduction came from the Innovator Energy, a company founded by a middle school science enthusiast that accidently found a way to capture 90% of CO2 at a 36$ per ton, the cheapest CC system in the market.

Along with these developments at lower scale, few industries already implemented capture systems to capture CO2 from their plants and there are more than 80 pilot or demonstration projects between operating and construction phases that also will contribute to improve the current technologies and discover new ways to trap carbon dioxide. Geographically, Europe, North America and China are leading the way on the use of CC technologies, especially focus on power plants and heavy industries.

Is It enough?

The world releases annually 33 billion tons of CO2 to the Atmosphere so the answer is NO. The large-scale CCS units installed along with the ones projected will reduce less than 1% making this solution itself widely insufficient to fight climate change. The most politically feasible scenario considered in the IPPC report allows an 86% increase of oil along with 59% decrease of coal use in the next 10 years. But 1200 gigatons of carbon emission should be extinguished by 2100.

Combined large-scale technologies with bio-energy carbon capture storage systems (BECCS) and other smaller carbon capture technologies seemed to fail to achieve alone the levels of CO2 emissions on “healthy” levels.

Still, We can’t give up until the end and latest news point for a brighter future for the carbon capture solutions, step by step, technology by technology.

Innovator Energy plans to start some pilot projects in 2019 and if it succeeds that could be a game changer for massive investments and implementations around the world.

The goal of CLIMEWORKS is to capture 1% of total CO2 emissions of the world using their direct-air technology.

Last October, Y Combinator, the famed Silicon Valley Start-Ups school where companies like Airbnb and Dropbox were born, is seeking to support start-ups with projects/ideas towards the carbon capture and storage, giving more energy and new possibilities for this area. They will focus on companies dedicated to absorbing and isolate CO2 from the following ways.

  • by creating new breeds of phytoplankton,
  • flooding deserts to grow plankton and other vegetation,
  • mining and grinding certain types of carbon-absorbing rocks
  • designing specialised carbon-eating microbes.

Time is short indeed and seems that failure is imminent although the clock did not stop yet and seems like We still have a word to say to minimize/mitigate climate change.

Jorge Seabra | Energy Consultant

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