Day 98: An injection well here, a few million dollars there, carbon sequestration gets off to a tenous start.

Date posted: May 2, 2009
Posted in: 100 Days of Science | climate change | Greener living
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Graphic by the Montana Environmental Information Center, on the web at www.meic.org

Graphic by the Montana Environmental Information Center, on the web at www.meic.org

We know we have the technology to inject carbon dioxide into the ground. Oil and gas companies have been doing it for years, as a way to push the goods to the surface. 

But can we make it stay there, as a way to keep it out of the atmosphere?That’s the multi-million-dollar question.

Carbon sequestration research got a boost this week when President Obama, speaking to the National Academy of Sciences, announced major funding for 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers across the country, which will build on existing institutions working on the gamut of carbon-alternative energy solutions.

“In no area will innovation be more important than in the development of new technologies to produce, use, and save energy,” Obama said, noting that “our future on this planet depends upon our willingness to address the challenge posed by carbon pollution.”

One of the funded programs is the Center for Nanoscale Control of Geologic CO2, at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. The project numbers among several sprouting up across the West, part of a gathering tide of fledgling carbon sequestration tests.

In theory, carbon sequestration will work because certain geological formations will readily contain carbon dioxide. Deep saline reservoirs and flood basalt deposits are appealing because they’re more likely to react with carbon dioxide to form solids than they are to release the stuff into nearby aquifers or the air. Depleted oil and gas reserves are hopeful because, as proponents say, they safely held oil and gas for thousands of years. 

One pilot project was set to go into flood basalt along the Columbia River basin several years ago. After numerous delays, that project is now getting under way near Boise, Idaho. 

Last month, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA issued permits to a DOE-supported partnership seeking to buy food-grade carbon dioxide – the stuff in soda – 2,000 tons of it. They’ll truck it to APS land in Joseph City, a small community in eastern Arizona. APS is Arizona’s largest electricity utility, and the project will be on-site at its coal-fired Cholla Power Plant.

The CO2 will be pumped into a deep saline formation 3,500 feet below the surface. 

If it does work, the Joseph City carbon sequestration project is a bare start for keeping carbon dioxide out of the air. The 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide it might contain would be emitted from a single coal-fired power plant in about two hours. But it is a start, and geologists hope the area around the pilot site could contain more CO2 in the future.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab project will aim to understand and solve the problems of sequestering liquid carbon dioxide captured from coal-burning power plants. The researchers involved in that effort say the science of subsurface flow is also directly applicable to a host of other environmental and energy-related challenges, including geothermal energy production, storage of spent nuclear fuel, and recovery of oil and gas from depleted reservoirs.

The researchers say they’ll try to characterize the pore configuration of a wide range of sedimentary rocks. The goal, they say, is to fill the available pore space efficiently without damaging the surrounding rock, since the liquid CO2 must be stored for hundreds of years without leaking into the atmosphere.

There are more carbon sequestration projects, belonging to six DOE consortia across the country. Between all of them, it’s reasonable to expect we’ll know soon how significant a role carbon sequestration will play in cleaning up our air. Meanwhile, I’m eager to see how we do on the front end — with reining in our emissions in the first place. Even if it works like a charm, carbon sequestration without reduced emissions will seem a little like liposuction without proper diet and exercise — probably not cheap, but definitely lazy. I hope it succeeds as part of a package of solutions that includes innovation alongside a growing sense of stewardship, and collective self-control.

Sources: Press release about the Joseph City pilot project, Eurekalert press release about the new DOE project, press release abou the Energy Frontier Research Centers. See also Valerie Brown’s very thorough High Country News article from 2007 about the project in the Pacific Northwest, a more recent article about that project, and the website of the West Coast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership, one of the six DOE groups across the country.

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