What Is Carbon Capture?
Capturing carbon dioxide to make useful products could soon become big business. Photo: © Oxford University

What Is Carbon Capture and Storage?

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Carbon capture and storage (CCS) – whose variants include “Carbon, capture utilisation and storage” (CCUS) and “Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage” (BECCS) – is a carbon sequestration technology that has become a key climate change mitigation strategy designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions and their effect on Earth’s climate. 1

Although CCS focuses on the capture of carbon dioxide at the source of emission, before it can be released into the atmosphere, it falls under the general umbrella of carbon dioxide removal (CDR), whose geoengineering strategies include direct air capture, enhanced weathering, biochar, and ocean fertilization. 2

What Does Carbon Capture and Storage Involve? 

CCS involves a 3-stage process: capture, transport and storage (or utilization). To begin with, it separates and collects the CO2 given off in the burning of fossil fuels at power plants and industrial factories, the so-called “point sources”. Typical industrial point sources include factories involved in cement manufacture, and steel plants. Next, the CO2 is compressed and transferred by pipeline or ship – usually to a site offering safe and permanent underground storage, preventing it from entering the atmosphere and boosting the greenhouse effect. Suitable locations for storing captured CO2 include deep rock formations – typically located several kilometers below the earth’s surface – depleted mines or oil and gas reservoirs.

Carbon Capture And Storage Diagram
Alternatively, instead of being stored, the CO2 may be used as a resource to create other products or services. This variant is known as “carbon capture, utilization and storage” (CCUS). Here, utilization refers to the conversion of carbon dioxide into chemicals, cements, plastics, and other products.

Another specific variant is known as “bio-energy with carbon capture and storage” (BECCS). This involves the burning of renewable biomass to produce energy, but with the added twist that the CO2 emitted is captured and stored, thus creating negative-emission energy. A working example is the large-scale BECCS facility at the Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage facility in the United States, which captures and stores one million tons of CO2 per year.

By reducing the discharge of man-made greenhouse gases, it is hoped that CCS will lessen the greenhouse effect, thus helping us to meet the targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement (2015), as reiterated by the IPCC in their Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018).

The IPCC calculates that in order to ward off catastrophic global warming, we need to remove somewhere between 100 billion to 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2050.

According to Julio Friedmann, chief executive officer of Carbon Wrangler LLC and a senior research scholar at Columbia University, this will be a major task. “We have to create an industry equivalent to the oil and gas industry whose job it is to undo emissions.” says Friedmann. 3

Direct Air Carbon Capture - How It Works
One way of capturing CO2 is by direct air capture. Large fans suck in air and emit carbon free air. This is known as direct air capture. Sometimes the CO2 is stored, but in this case, the company Climeworks (based in Zurich, Switzerland), sell their captured CO2 to a neighboring greenhouse to grow vegetables. Photo: © Climeworks

Why Is CCS Important?

Since the Paris Climate Agreement, global efforts to reduce CO2 emissions have largely failed, resulting in an ever-widening “emissions gap“. Meantime, fossil fuel consumption shows no sign of decreasing, and renewable energy – while enjoying strong growth – is barely keeping pace with global growth in energy consumption.

Global Temperature Predictions By 2100
Image: © Climate Action Tracker. 2019

As a result, carbon capture and storage is one of the only technologies that can help fossil fuel users to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while still generating the electricity and other industrial products, like steel, cement and chemicals, that make up the basic building blocks of modern society. This applies in particular to developing countries, where two new coal-fired power stations are opened almost every week. It is accepted that these countries will continue to be dependent on coal as well as petroleum and natural gas, for decades.

However, one should not overstate the contribution of carbon dioxide removal techniques like CCS. It’s an important option in the portfolio of climate mitigation actions, but even the most optimistic CCS proponents do not claim that it can account for more than 20 percent of CO2 emissions. Even 20 percent seems rather optimistic given the slow pace of development in the CSS sector.

Best case: CCS is only one of several CO2-reducing options. Others include: the switch to electric cars, an internationally agreed carbon tax, a halt to deforestation, production of more renewable energy, and a reduction in energy consumption in developed countries, involving (say) a limit on non-essential aeroplane flights.

Does CCS Work?

It’s too soon to say.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the application of CCS to a modern power plant can reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 80–90 percent compared to a plant without CCS. 4

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), CCS could account for nearly one fifth of the reductions in CO2 emissions required by 2050. 5 But that was back in 2012. Today, things don’t look quite so promising.

Critics of CCS say it is too expensive and is likely to have adverse impacts on air quality, as it leads to fossil fuel inefficiencies necessitating the burning of more fuel. They say a better option is renewable energy. For example, a recent study compared the net energy efficiencies of CCS-regulated fossil-fuel power plants and renewable electricity. It found the fossil-fuel CCS plants to be less effective, compared to the rapid expansion of scalable renewable electricity. 6

Another recent study casts doubt on the actual savings in carbon emissions. 7 According to lead author Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University: “all sorts of scenarios have been developed under the assumption that carbon capture reduces carbon emissions substantially. However, our research finds that it reduces only a small fraction of carbon emissions, and it usually increases air pollution.”

The problem is, the development of CCS remains sluggish. The “capture” is the difficult part of the process, with different methods needed for different point sources. Overall, the pace of development will be determined by the scale of incoming investment, the willingness of governments to encourage growth in this area, and the ability of scientists to overcome the technological and financial obstacles that still remain.

So far (as of Dec 2019), there are 18 large-scale CCS projects in operation around the world (another 5 large-scale CCS facilities are under construction and 20 in various stages of development), which are currently capturing and storing some 31.5 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. Most of the installations are in industrial rather than electricity generating plants. About 10 percent of the captured CO2 is stored in geological formations. 8 9

An example is Unit 3 of the Boundary Dam coal–fired power station in Saskatchewan, Canada. Its refurbishment in October 2014 included retrofitting carbon dioxide capture facilities with a capacity of approximately 1 million tons of CO2 per annum. Most of the captured CO2 is piped to the Weyburn Oil Unit in Saskatchewan where it is used for enhanced oil recovery. The rest is transported by pipeline to a nearby geological storage site. 10

According to the U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), North America has sufficient CO2 storage capacity for more than 900 years’ worth of CCS operations at current rates of CO2 production. Even so, long term forecasts about the integrity and security of underground CO2 storage must remain uncertain due to the risk of leakage and/or rock collapse. 11

Carbon capture methods - direct air capture
Carbon Engineering Ltd, are pioneering a large-scale carbon dioxide removal plant, which uses direct air capture.

How Does CCS Work?

As we have seen, carbon capture and storage involves three main steps: (1) separating and hiving off the CO2 from other gases; (2) purifying, compressing, and transferring the captured CO2 to the storage site; and (3) injecting the CO2 into underground geological reservoirs.

Capture

This is the most technically challenging and costly part of the process. Moreover, separating the CO2 requires energy and typically involves adding extra steps to existing processes. Once separated, the CO2 can be purified and compressed to prepare it for transport. CO2 capture falls into one of four categories – post-combustion capture, oxy-fuel combustion, pre-combustion capture, or inherent separation – although occasionally a combination of methods may be used to create a hybrid process.

In a worst-case scenario, the cost of implementing the capture phase of CCS may increase the cost of electricity by 80 percent and reduce an electricity-generating plant’s net capacity by 20 percent. 12

Post-Combustion Capture

Post Combustion Carbon Capture Diagram
Diagram of Post-Combustion Carbon Capture

Here, the CO2 is separated from the other waste gases at the end of the industrial process in question – typically as the gases are exiting via the flue. Amine-based absorption (carbon-scrubbing) systems are then used to capture the CO2. Here’s how. In a vessel known as an absorber, the waste gases are “scrubbed” with an amine solution, typically absorbing 85-90 percent of the CO2. The CO2-saturated solvent is then pumped to a second container, known as a regenerator, where steam is applied to release the CO2. The resulting stream of pure CO2 is then compressed and piped to storage, while the used solvent is recycled back to the absorber vessel.

This technology is well documented and is used in other industrial applications. Post combustion capture is a favoured method because it can be retrofitted to existing fossil fuel power plants. 13

Examples of post combustion capture include the CCS used at the 115-megawatt unit at the coal-fired Boundary Dam power plant, referred to above, and at the 640-megawatt unit at the coal-fired Petra Nova power station in Texas, which together capture more than 2 million tonnes of CO2 per year. 9

Oxy-Fuel Combustion

Oxy-fuel combustion is the process of burning a fuel in oxygen instead of air. Since ordinary air contains 78 percent nitrogen – a huge volume of gas which is not present in oxygen – oxy-fuel combustion leads to lower fuel consumption and higher flame temperatures. 14 To regulate flame temperatures, cooled flue gas is recycled back into the combustion chamber. The flue gas consists almost entirely of carbon dioxide and water vapor, with the latter being condensed through cooling. Once this is done, the result is almost pure carbon dioxide.

Research is currently focused on the development of synthetic membranes (made from polymers, like polyamide or cellulose acetate) as an alternative to air separation, as well as new processes including chemical looping and supercritical CO2 power cycles. In the latter process, fuel gas is burned at high pressure in oxygen – the combustion being moderated by recycled CO2 and/or water vapor – with the resulting hot high-pressure gas being fed into a turbine to generate electricity. An example of this supercritical system in operation, is the 50-megawatt plant in La Porte, Texas. 9

FAQS About Climate
For answers to over 100 popular questions on our present climate crisis, see: 50 FAQs About Global Warming and 50 Climate Change FAQs.

Pre-Combustion Capture

The technology used in pre-combustion capture is widely used in plants producing chemicals, fertilizer, chemical, gaseous fuel, and electricity. Fossil fuels (or bioenergy) are partially oxidized to produce a gaseous mixture known as synthesis gas, or syngas. This consists of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2). The carbon monoxide is treated with steam (H2O) which converts it (the CO) into carbon dioxide (CO2) and yet more hydrogen. Then a chemical solvent – like Selexol is used to capture the CO2 before combustion takes place, while the nearly pure hydrogen is burned in a combined cycle power plant to produce electricity, or else is used as for chemical production or the generation of heat. 9

A large-scale example of pre-combustion capture in operation, is the $2.1-billion Great Plains Synfuels Plant near Beulah, North Dakota, which converts coal into synthetic natural gas, capturing 3 million tonnes of CO2 per year in the process. Pre-combustion capture is well suited to high CO2-emitting plants such as those in the chemical and iron and steel industries.

Inherent Separation

Certain systems in industry and fuel production generate high-purity CO2 streams as an intrinsic part of the manufacturing process (e.g. natural gas processing, ethanol production). Indeed, technologies for capturing CO2 from gas streams have been used for many years for use in food processing and chemical industries. This intrinsic generation of high-purity CO2 is known as inherent separation. 9

Transport Of Carbon Dioxide

After capture, the CO2 is purified and compressed then transported to suitable storage sites by pipeline (the cheapest form of transport for large volumes of CO2) or, where pipelines are not feasible, by ship. Millions of tons of CO2 are already transported every year by pipeline and while only small amounts of CO2 are transported by ship, industry has enormous experience at moving similar products by ship, including liquefied natural gas, propane, and butane.

How Carbon Capture Works
How CO2 can be captured and stored

The U.S., for example, has had more than four decades of experience in the transportation of CO2 by pipeline, for its numerous enhanced oil recovery (EOR) projects. As of April 2015, the CO2 pipeline network in the U.S. extends for more than 7,200 km (4,500 miles). 15

Transportation of gas by pipeline requires attention to issues such as: design, monitoring for leaks, and protection against overpressure, especially in densely populated areas.

Costs for pipeline transport vary mainly according to volume of CO2 and distance. Shipping costs might be lower than pipeline transport for distances longer than 1,000 kilometers and for less than a few million tons of CO2 transported per year. 16

How Is Captured Carbon Dioxide Stored Underground?

CO2 storage (sequestration) involves the injection of captured CO2 into deep underground geological reservoirs of porous rock, that are overlain by a layer an impermeable layer of rocks (such as shale) which acts as the ‘seal’ and prevents the escape of the CO2. Several types of geological formations are being considered for carbon sequestration: mainly deep saline reservoirs and depleted oil and gas reservoirs.

How Carbon Dioxide Is Stored

Deep saline reservoirs (saline aquifers) are layers of sedimentary rock that are saturated with salty water (brine) – a fairly common geological formation in both onshore and offshore basins. Depleted oil and gas reservoirs are porous rock formations containing either mainly crude oil or gas that has been physically sequestered in the rock for millions of years.

In each case, the carbon dioxide is injected in a supercritical state (as a dense fluid) into a porous rock formation that holds or has held fluids. When injected at depths greater than about 800 meters (2,500 feet), the pressure keeps the injected CO2 supercritical, making it less likely to migrate out of the storage area. This and the overlying impermeable layer of rocks ensures that the CO2 remains trapped underground.

Global CO2 storage capacity is calculated to be well in excess of future requirements, even under the most ambitious scenarios. In the United States alone, for instance, the Department of Energy has estimated the CO2 storage capacity to be between 2.6 trillion and 22 trillion tons. However, further work will be needed to convert theoretical capacity into “bankable” storage.

CO2 Injection Technology Similar To Enhanced Oil Recovery

The process of injecting CO2 into deep geological sites employs existing, well-understood technologies that have been developed and used over decades by the oil and gas industry, and which can be further developed for long-term storage and monitoring of CO2.

In the United States, which leads the world in CO2 injection technologies for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), oil and gas companies inject more than 68 million tons of CO2 into underground reservoirs each year to help recover oil and gas resources. The process, which is a central feature of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking“, can be adapted for CCS purposes with no obvious difficulty, and the industrial CO2-emitters who install CCS technology are able to partially recoup the costs of CO2 capture and transport by selling the captured CO2 for EOR purposes.

In fact, CO2-EOR has had a significant influence in the early deployment of “carbon capture, utilization and storage” (CCUS), with roughly 75 percent of operational projects being devoted to enhanced oil recovery, almost all of which are located in North America. The revenue derived from the sale of the captured CO2 for EOR purposes has been a key factor in securing investment in new CCUS installations. CO2-EOR is forecast to play a continuing role in the Middle East, China and other regions. 8

Global CO2 storage capacity is calculated to be well in excess of future requirements, even under the most ambitious scenarios. In the United States alone, for instance, the Department of Energy has estimated the CO2 storage capacity to be between 2.6 trillion and 22 trillion tons. However, further work will be needed to convert theoretical capacity into “bankable” storage.

No Storage Of CO2 In Oceans

In the past, suggestions were entertained that CO2 could be stored in the oceans, but this would increase acidity levels in the ocean and, in any case, has been made illegal under the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (1972) (the London Convention), and the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (the OSPAR Convention). 17

Is Underground Storage Reliable?

It seems so. Projects such as the offshore Sleipner CCS project in the North Sea have demonstrated the safety and reliability of underground storage for more than two decades. The Sleipner natural gas field lies about 250 kilometres west of Stavanger, Norway. Its Western field is used as a long-term storage facility for carbon capture and storage (CCS). As of 2018, one million tonnes of CO2 have been injected into the formation every year since 1996, with no problems. 18 19 There are now four other dedicated geological storage projects in operation and one in construction. 9

What Is The Risk Of CO2 Leaking Into The Atmosphere?

What’s the danger of carbon dioxide leaking into the atmosphere from its storage area? Based upon the experiences of the Sleipner CCS project and others, geological storage sites seem able to store injected CO2 permanently (more than 1,000 years) without any significant leakage. Scientists use computer simulation of storage reservoir dynamics and modelling to analyze the mechanisms that affect the behavior and movement of the injected CO2. In addition, storage sites can be carefully monitored to ensure timely detection of any warning signs of leaks.

In order to detect carbon dioxide leaks and check the integrity of geological sequestration sites, several different monitoring techniques are available to verify that the CO2 remains in its designated reservoir. 20

Surface Monitoring

Eddy covariance is a surface monitoring method that measures the flux of carbon dioxide from the ground’s surface. It entails recording CO2 concentrations and vertical wind velocities using an anemometer; 21 Another way of measuring CO2 ground emissions is by using accumulation chambers.

Subsurface Monitoring

Examples include: drilling down to collect a fluid sample; or sending sound or electromagnetic waves down to a certain point and have them reflected back up to be analyzed and interpreted.

Another form of subsurface monitoring, sometimes called seismic monitoring, uses vibrational waves that are created either at ground level using a vibroseis truck, or inside a drilling well using spinning eccentric mass. These vibrational waves propagate through the layers of rock, sending back patterns that can detect CO2 leakage pathways. 22

Satellite Monitoring

This involves a satellite sending signals down to the Earth’s surface from where they are bounced back to the satellite’s receiver. The signals detect any tiny changes in the elevation of the surface of the Earth, caused by movements in highly pressurized, fluid filled layers deep below. 23

What Is The Cost Of Carbon Capture and Storage?

  • As much as 70-90 percent of the total cost for CCS is associated with the capture and compression phases of CCS. 24 According to another study, about 60 percent of the cost of CCS comes from the capture process; 30 percent comes from compression of CO2; and the other 10 percent from electricity requirements for necessary pumps and fans. 25 
  • The cost of capturing and compressing the CO2 gas is estimated to raise the price of electricity by about 21–91 percent per kilowatt-hour. 26
  • UK government estimates suggest CCS will raise the cost of gas-fired electricity by 50 percent. 27
  • U.S. congressional researchers have stated that, in a worst-case scenario, the cost of implementing the capture phase of CCS may increase the cost of electricity by 80 percent and reduce an electricity-generating plant’s net capacity by 20 percent. 28
  • But other experts cite a lower cost. 29
  • CCS was trialled for coal-fired plants in the early 21st century but was found to be economically unviable in most countries, although trials remain ongoing in China. 30
  • As of 2018 a carbon price of at least 100 euros has been estimated to be needed for industrial CCS to be viable. 31

What Are The Environmental Drawbacks Of CCS?

Because extra energy is required for CO2 capture, it means that more fuel has to be used to produce the same amount of power, depending on the exact plant type. The extra energy requirement varies from 24-40 percent (for new super-critical pulverized coal plants); to 11-22 percent (for natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) plants); and 14-25 percent (for coal-based gasification combined cycle (IGCC) systems).

By forcing power plants to burn more coal, oil or gas, CCS increases the environmental effects of fossil fuels, which are hardly trivial. After all, one of the main reasons why methane levels are rising, is leakage from the processing and transport of natural gas. In fact, according to one study, CCS will actually: “increase all ecological, land-use, air-pollution, and water-pollution impacts from coal mining, transport, and processing, because the CCS system requires 25 percent more energy, thus 25 percent more coal combustion, than does a system without CCS”. 32

Does Carbon Capture and Storage Help To Prevent Climate Change?

It’s too soon to say. Differing views abound.

  • In its Fifth Assessment Report (2014) the IPCC maps out two pathways (RCP 2.6 and RCP 4.5) to keep warming to 1.5°C. In addition to reducing consumption of fossil fuels, both pathways rely on reforestation, shifts to electric transport systems and greater use of carbon capture technology. The success of the RCP 2.6 scenario is expressly contingent upon global cooperation among all CO2 emitters as well as the application of CDR and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. 33
  • Greenpeace claims that CCS could lead to a doubling of coal plant costs. 34 Other environmental groups have compared the storage of captured CO2 to storing dangerous radioactive waste from nuclear power stations. 35
  • Other critics point to the cost of CCS, especially as applied to electricity power plants, and also to the fact that by making plants less efficient, CCS leads to the need for more fossil fuel to be extracted, transported and burned. Which also leads to more pollution and greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere before and after combustion.
  • CCS technology is expected to use between 10 and 40 percent of the energy produced by a power station. 36

If you want advice how to reduce your personal carbon emissions, read our article: How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

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