Capturing Carbon, Saving the Planet
Cutting-edge carbon capture technologies seek to help in the fight against global climate change.
When power plants burn coal and natural gas, they release millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other gases into the air every year, adding to the trends of extreme weather conditions, droughts, species extinctions, economic losses and other problems caused by climate change.
But what if there was a way to prevent these harmful gases from reaching the atmosphere in the first place?
Thanks to recent scientific advancements, a solution might exist—and it’s one that the U.S. government is actively pursuing. “We have made the largest government investment in carbon capture and storage of any nation...,” commented U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, referring to a technological process that is gaining popularity both within the United States and around the world.
How it works
Carbon capture technology can work in three main ways, according to the Carbon Capture and Storage Association. Post-combustion capture means that the carbon dioxide released from the burning of coal or natural gas is absorbed by a solvent, and then removed, before it can escape into the environment.
Alternatively, coal or gas can be specially processed before being burned for power, converting the fossil fuel into a mix of carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The polluting gas can be removed, and the hydrogen can be burned separately as a much cleaner source of energy. The process is known as pre-combustion capture.
Finally, coal or gas can be burned surrounded by pure oxygen and not by normal air, as is done in standard power plants. The resulting carbon dioxide will be more concentrated and, therefore, easier to remove. The process is known as oxy-fuel combustion.
Once carbon dioxide is separated and contained, the gas is compressed and, most often, put into a pipeline that transports it away from the power plant. To finish the process, the carbon dioxide is injected into underground spaces, such as former oil and gas fields, in which it can be stored.
How effective is carbon capture at reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions? According to the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants can reach as high as 90 percent.
Making energy and capturing carbon dioxide
The association’s predictions are being put into practice in projects like Petra Nova Parish Holdings in Houston, Texas. Supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, the project aims to capture over a million tons of carbon dioxide annually from an existing coal-fueled power plant. Before being stored underground permanently, the captured carbon dioxide will be used to increase production at mature oil fields in the U.S. Gulf Coast region, in a process known as Enhanced Oil Recovery.
Another Department of Energy-supported initiative is the Texas Clean Energy Project, which will begin construction in 2016. The “clean coal” power plant will be a first-of-its-kind facility that will capture 90 percent of its carbon dioxide output—roughly two million tons per year—and also provide commercial products from gasified coal, including urea for fertilizer and sulfuric acid. And like Petra Nova, Texas Clean Energy Project will use its captured carbon dioxide to help extract oil before storing the gas underground.
“When it comes to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the data has shown us that we need all hands on deck to solve this problem,” says Caroline Masiello, professor of earth science and chemistry at Rice University in Texas. Due to rise in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, most people are going to experience not just increased temperature but also extreme weather events like droughts and heavy downpours. That will impact people’s access to safe drinking water and water for agriculture.
“This is a big problem and no single technology is going to fix it by itself,” she continues. “We need as many technologies as possible to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.