Mapping and Demystifying Carbon Capture and Storage

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Fatima Cecunjanin, C+S ’16

Geoengineering is a term that climate aficionados and anyone with an opinion on environmental issues tends to perceive with apprehension and mistrust due to the ambiguous, potentially dangerous side effects of manipulating natural processes of the environment. Of course the Industrial Revolution turned out to be a kind of unintended geoengineering catastrophe with exceptional effects on global climate that we are experiencing today. With that said, many would question the logic behind seeking out other ways to meddle with the climate when so much damage has already been done.

Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy is the preferred climate mitigation strategy because of its environmentally benign nature, and the potential to rapidly scale it up. But this only curbs greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. The carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we’ve already emitted will linger in the atmosphere for up to 200 years and will have profound effects on the climate for centuries to come.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th Assessment Report suggests that the world should not only strive to reduce emissions, but also aim for net negative emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. While natural sinks like soil and trees can take care of some of the job, they can’t handle the entire burden. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects, if scaled widely, can potentially provided the added negative emissions needed to keep the world from dealing with catastrophic climate change.

Air capture technology, such as that developed by Klaus Lackner at the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, is an exciting feat of science and ingenuity, though it’s still relatively new technology not ready for scaling yet. Carbon mineral sequestration — a storage method wherein carbon dioxide reacts carbonate minerals to create rocks — is also in its infancy.

Despite early efforts, there is still a large gap in understanding how this technology works and can be scaled. This is what I had the opportunity to research and map over the summer. It’s clearer to me than before just more information we need about these new forms of technology. How do we demystify this technology and show that it is capable of scaling far and wide?

Preliminary geospatial studies show that hot, dry areas are the most ideal locations for Klaus Lackner’s air capture device. Since the device requires a small amount of energy, co-locating it with wind energy adds another environmental parameter to the map.

Source: Yale Climate Opinion Maps

Source: Yale Climate Opinion Maps

Mineralizing anthropogenic carbon dioxide within carbonate minerals has the largest capacity, longest storage time, and is the most environmentally benign of any method yet proposed for capturing and storing carbon. A map like the one above, which shows the amount of carbon dioxide that can potentially be stored in asbestos waste tailings, shows that a significant amount of carbon dioxide can be stored using this process with the co-benefit of remediating asbestos. Other pilot projects are proving successful, and something like the CarbFix project in Iceland is another way to show the potential of mineral sequestration and CCS in general.

While browsing the Yale Climate opinion maps, it’s discouraging to see how split the U.S. still is on climate issues. Less than half of American adults believe that global warming is caused mostly by human activities. Many adults also don’t understand where scientists stand on these issues. There is, however, a more promising consensus about what to do with carbon dioxide. Around three-quarters of adults polled expressed support for regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, which is a good sign for the future acceptance of CCS as a carbon dioxide management strategy.

One could argue that scaling CCS and putting it on the map is getting ahead of ourselves given the financial, technological, and societal challenges that are still a road block to implementation and large scale application. What we know now is that there is technology that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it works, and it’s ready for application. Additionally, mineral sequestration is a proven method to lock carbon dioxide away for millions of years.

While funding is obviously important, I think the main problem is less about finding massive amounts of money for these projects and more about figuring out how they fit into the spectrum of climate mitigation strategies, how they will contribute to carbon removal, and further, how they will fit into society. Conceptual maps and other models can act as starting points for establishing a framework to address these challenges.

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