A paradigm shift is underway in the arena of greenhouse gas emissions.
Once considered to be only a waste product—and the cause of many negative effects of climate change—greenhouse gases (GHG) are now seen as a valuable resource.
Over the last few years, interest in carbon capture, storage and utilization has grown significantly, and innovative strategies are now in development.
CO2 is the focus, as it is a safe inert gas produced in plentiful amounts.
Projects like SaskPower’s $1.3-billion carbon capture and storage endeavor at Boundary Dam are underway, coinciding with research into ways to use captured carbon in the manufacture of products like plastic and fuel.
As Mary Rosenthal, executive director of the United States-based Algae Biomass Organization said in September, “it’s time to turn the lemon of carbon emissions into lemonade.”
Canada is making strides.
“Canada continues to play a leading role in progressing the worldwide effort to advance carbon capture research,” says Robert Craig, director of strategy and technology at the Integrated CO2 Network (ICO2N), a Calgary-based group of energy sector companies.
Craig says the challenges with the economics of carbon capture has resulted in some delays in implementing various projects, but that carbon utilization is emerging as an important research and development vector to help overcome these challenges.
Before we go further, let’s clarify the terminology.
Marc Godin, technical advisor at Calgary-based consulting firm Portfire Associates, notes that carbon-related acronyms are used differently by different people.
He says carbon capture and storage (CCS) can encompass just storage, such as placing CO2 in a deep saline aquifer, but also revenue-generating activity such as enhanced oil recovery (EOR), where CO2 is injected into an oil reservoir, resulting in higher oil production.
However, Godin also points out that EOR is seen by some to be encompassed in carbon capture and utilization (CCU).
On the other hand, he says the Global CCS Institute considers CCU to be included in CCS.
Some use CCUS to encompass all of it.
Whatever way they are labelled, strategies and projects aimed at diverting GHG emissions are going strong in Canada.
ICO2N supports the activities of SaskPower, Shell Canada and Enhance Energy as they seek to deploy large scale projects.
“It is through these projects, in conjunction with other projects around the globe, that capture technology costs will begin to decrease,” Craig says. “In addition to these large projects, smaller research initiatives at the corporate, government and academic levels are investigating novel methods to economically recover carbon dioxide from industrial streams.”
One of these methods is enzymatic carbon capture technology, created by Quebec-based CO2 Solutions.
Vice-president of business development Jonathan Carley says the firm’s Alberta oil sands project has been highly successful.
“Carbon capture projects linked to EOR is where much of our focus is at the moment,” he notes. “EOR holds large potential if CO2 can be captured and generated from flue gases efficiently.”
CO2 Solutions has been supported by the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC), a not-for-profit organization in Alberta that uses funds from industry to help develop ‘clean’ technologies.
Over the last few years, CCEMC has funded 51 projects with a total investment of $1.3-billion, says managing director Kirk Andries.
“Carbon capture and storage is very important in the Alberta context,” he explains. “We are supporting technologies which reduce the cost.”
In addition to CO2 Solutions’ exciting enzymatic carbon capture tech, Andries says another CCEMC-supported project of note is the technology developed by Dr. David Keith at the University of Calgary, which involves direct capture of CO2 from the air.
“This machine could someday be located at storage reservoirs and also used for oil displacement,” he says.
CCEMC supports the development of carbon utilization tech as well through its Grand Challenge.
The global competition seeks to “significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by fostering the development of technologies that create new carbon-based, value-added products and markets.”
Andries says CCEMC received 344 applications in its latest call for proposals, and that first round winners out of 55 chosen full proposals will be announced in April 2014.
These 20 semi-finalists will receive as much as $500,000 each, while two years later, five selected projects will get $3-million.
The winner, selected two years later—for creating a technology that can provide an annual net one-megatonne reduction in greenhouse gas emissions—gets $10-million for development.
Despite technological challenges, and the current lack of international agreement on carbon pricing, people like Carley believe the future of carbon storage and use is bright, especially with more R&D investment.
He sees EOR as an accelerating solution in the cost conundrum of getting new technologies commercialized.
“We believe that the first commercial scale-CCS projects like Boundary Dam will rely on revenues generated by the sale of pure CO2 for EOR to largely offset carbon capture costs,” he says. “There is substantial demand for CO2 for EOR in western Canada.”