FROM THE FIELD
Climate Week NYC

You Asked: Does Carbon Capture Technology Actually Work?

by |September 27, 2019

You Asked” is a series where Earth Institute experts tackle reader questions on science and sustainability. In honor of Climate Week NYC and the Covering Climate Now initiative, we’re focusing on your questions about climate change.

The following questions were submitted through our Instagram page by one of our followers.  

What is the current state-of-the-art carbon capture technology? Does it really work to help address the reduction of carbon footprint in a significant way?

Julio Friedmann

Julio Friedmann is a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. Photo: The Earth Institute

“To put it briefly: Yes, it does work,” said Julio Friedmann, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. He pointed out that industrial facilities that scrub carbon dioxide from their flue gas have reduced their life-cycle emissions of CO2 by 55 to 90 percent. The technology also reduces pollutants like sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxide, and particulates. And the best part is that it costs only $40 for per tonne of CO2.

The first carbon capture plant was proposed in 1938, and the first large-scale project to inject CO2 into the ground launched in the Sharon Ridge oilfield in Texas in 1972. Around 24 years later, Norway launched the world’s first integrated carbon capture and storage project, known as Sleipner, in the North Sea.

Today, there are 43 commercial large-scale carbon capture and storage facilities all over the world. Out of these, 18 are in operation and 16 are industrial.

According to the International Energy Agency, globally more than 30 million tons of CO2 is captured from large scale carbon capture, utilization, and storage facilities every year. Over 70 percent of this is done in North America. However, industrial facilities are capturing less than one percent of the CO2 that is required to meet the Paris agreement targets for 2040, says a 2018 report compiled by the Global CCS Institute.

The good news is that, over the years, the technology has evolved to a level where there are no technical barriers to effectively storing CO2 permanently on a large scale. If used more widely, experts claim it could go a long way toward meeting the ambitious climate targets that were set in the Paris Agreement.

Based on data collected over the last several decades, there is a wide consensus among experts, engineers, and geologists alike that it is safe to permanently inject and store carbon dioxide. As of today, five more carbon capture and storage facilities are being constructed and another 20 are in “various stages of development” globally.

In the above-mentioned carbon capture and storage facilities, the companies mainly use enhanced oil recovery, where CO2 is directly injected into oil reserves to make it easier to extract oil. The CO2 is then stored in the layers of rock that previously retained oil. Around 98 percent of the injected CO2 remains permanently trapped in the sub-surface. In the private sector, several companies are turning CO2 into profits.

The reason why carbon capture and storage technology is so sophisticated is that CO2 has been stored in natural rock formations for periods of over one thousand years. Every continent has natural carbon dioxide gas fields that have helped scientists to identify what type of reservoirs and rocks are required to permanently store and seal CO2.

Today, a surge of new technologies like hydrogen with carbon capture and storage and direct air capture show equal promise. A previous State of the Planet blog post written by freelance science writer Renee Cho details the different ways carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere.

The Global CCS Institute’s report asserts that the biggest obstruction to realizing the full potential of carbon capture and storage technology is that the market still does not provide any substantial incentives for companies to gain a full return on investment. The need of the hour is policies that fully support investments in carbon capture and storage.

The United States is the world’s leader in this space, hosting the highest number of large-scale carbon capture and storage facilities in the world. Out of the 18 facilities, 10 are in the U.S. Texas boasts of the largest facility, which is known as the Century Natural Gas plant. With access to such state-of-the-art carbon capture and storage technology, the U.S. has the potential to capture over 27 million tons every year — roughly equivalent to taking 5.4 million cars off the roads. That is if policies and incentives could keep pace with the technology.


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Geoffrey Peel
3 years ago

I have a proposal for removing gigatonnes of CO2 from the South Pacific Ocean and in doing so reducing the acidity.

This method is based on growing a vast free-floating kelp forest ecosystem between New Zealand and South America.

The key to doing this is the design of the individual kelp buoys which allows the minerals required by the growing kelp plants to be carried by each kelp buoy. The required iron and minerals always being close to the growing kelp plants, this is regardless of what iron or other minerals, may be lacking in the surrounding ocean. ( No need to fertilize the entire ocean ).

The full proposal can be viewed using the link below,

https://southpacificmarinepark.com/

Geoffrey Peel, Auckland, New Zealand.

Charles Cartwright
Charles Cartwright
Reply to  Geoffrey Peel
3 years ago

The co2 returns when the kelp decays.

wadelightly
wadelightly
Reply to  Geoffrey Peel
11 months ago

The oceans are not acidic therefor you can not “reduce” acidity. The pH of oceans are approximately 8 which is basic. They MAY become less basic, not more acidic. Sorry, just a stickler for details.

Charles Cartwright
Charles Cartwright
3 years ago

Why not simply sequester the carbon?
Leave the oxygen in the atmosphere.
Let plants remove the carbon dioxide.
Convert the plants to charcoal(carbon) and sequester the charcoal.
Grow more plants and repeat.

Dan
Dan
Reply to  Charles Cartwright
2 years ago

That would take tens of thousands of years.

Larry Bell
Larry Bell
Reply to  Charles Cartwright
8 months ago

To plant more trees means reduce the size of cities or any other urban waste lands and convert the empty urban land back into forests. But that means you have to reduce the population to about two billion by attrition. This would take about a hundred years and everyone has to volunteer to have less babies.

jude kirk
jude kirk
3 years ago

Is it a silly thought that all aircraft could be fitted for carbon collection and a system and procedure put in place to service this collection unit in the same way other aircraft service is implemented. There are many synergies around a process like this that could benefit everyone involved including the airlines being subsidised, and of course the main pollution is around the aircraft hubs.
How ever small the collection would start the technology would expand quickly!

40,000 aircraft a day collecting a small amount of carbon must be worth thinking about if not already advanced and I missed it?

Jude Kirk

Louise Shaw
Louise Shaw
Reply to  jude kirk
2 years ago

Only if the aircraft collect more than they emit.

Chuckava
3 years ago

Every car and truck gets a small carbon capture unit. As the technology advances and as vehicles convert to electricity for power then eventually every vehicle captures more carbon than it produces. One billion vehicles in the world. If they were all carbon negative what would be the impact?
First one to develop and patent this device becomes a billionaire. Call it The CC Rider.
You may use that name free of charge.
You’re welcome.

Pete
Pete
Reply to  Chuckava
2 years ago

They tried something like that in California on diesel engines and it caused more problems than it solved. Good idea, but the tech isn’t quite there yet.

Alex Z
1 year ago

Yet another article telling us we don’t have to change our ways – there’s a magic tech solution! Please, please do the arithmetic. Just how much space would we need to store all the carbon even if we could capture it? How much energy would that require? And if you’re only talking about CCS because DAC is unrealistic, how much difference would that make. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news: solving the climate crisis and saving our skins is going to involve a bit of sacrifice.

Elmer
Elmer
1 year ago

It is idiotic to pump carbon from the ground and then “capture” it from the air and put it back in the ground.
The best carbon capture is just to leave it where it is.

Ben Pearre
Ben Pearre
1 year ago

Fossil fuels contribute to many problems. Carbon capture will at best have no effect on most of them. More likely, it will exacerbate the ones we don’t explicitly combat.

A few nice pieces of recent research have made a strong case that the benefits of moving away from fossil fuels outweigh the costs even if there is no global warming. I’m not claiming that there’s no global warming, but rather pointing out one line of evidence that fossil fuels do much damage unrelated to carbon.

Visit L.A. or Beijing or really any city. Pollution can have a dramatic impact on health. Smog, ozone, PM2.5s, toxic metals in our air and water supplies, etc. I believe someone even claimed that the covid19 shutdowns saved more lives due to clean air than due to covid reduction, which may or may not be true or current, but which echoes the important point.

Fossil fuels make cars easy. Cars are brilliant if used wisely, but it has proven too tempting to overuse them. This is not a matter of personal freedom/choice: anything you do that makes using cars easier ends up making sustainable or healthy or scalable transport harder—by increasing sprawl, taking up too much space in cities, increasing the danger to pedestrians and cyclists, simply reinforcing the status quo so that cyclists and pedestrians are viewed as hippie troublemakers… Paradoxically, making driving more convenient also ends up hurting drivers within a few years (perhaps the best example is a phenomenon called “induced demand”). Defaulting to cars pulls us towards diseases of inactivity—obesity, heart disease, depression, a dozen kinds of stress, even some cancers, …) and a couple of car-specific problems (windshield syndrome, social isolation, car accidents, road rage…). Cars are expensive to own, operate, and store, and if they are the default, they exacerbate poverty, which is a public health nightmare in a hundred ways—including, of all things, susceptibility to disinformation! Beyond carbon capture—we need car capture! (A similar story could be told about electric cars, and about self-driving cars, but I’ll save those for another time.)

Then there are sourcing problems: the costs of extracting fossil fuels include not just pollution from oil spills and methane leaks and fracking fluid and pit mining and dirty transportation etc, but also geopolitical destabilization. Biofuels cause new problems by competing for land that would otherwise be used for food, wildlife habitat, parks, or natural carbon capture…

And now the punchline: with all of these problems, perfect carbon capture could possibly help with EXACTLY ONE. If we have good news on carbon capture, that will reduce the pressure to stop burning fossil fuels, which will _at_best_ fail to help with all the other problems. But I’ve met a few humans, seen their ways, so I fear that it will actually give us license to burn more fossil fuels less responsibly. I’d bet that the more good news we get on carbon capture, the worse all the other problems of fossil fuels will become.

I’ll stop before this becomes a complete article in its own right (or perhaps that ship has sailed). I just wanted to emphasize how important it is that we recognise the many problems that fossil fuels create, and talk about the risks of making progress on only the most newsworthy one.

Greg
Greg
1 year ago

Why not just not extract the fossil fuels? You yourself said most of the CO2 captured is used to pump out more fossil fuels. Get over it – stop extracting this killer stuff and move on.

Oh, your little unit at an American university is just a front for the planet killing Oil Industry.

https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/about/partners

Sarah Fecht
Admin
Reply to  Greg
1 year ago
Steven R Knudsen
Steven R Knudsen
Reply to  Sarah Fecht
1 year ago

Scientists need a place to go and get information about energy technologies. I appreciate the information in this article.

Dave
Dave
Reply to  Greg
1 year ago

If not for fossil fuels, the planet could not generate the food necessary to sustain the population. Answer is not so simple as to quit using fossil fuels. Of course, abandoning fossil fuels would lead to rapid depopulation so needs would be less. Not sure this is acceptable solutions for mankind.

Steven R Knudsen
Steven R Knudsen
Reply to  Dave
1 year ago

Human nature is such that we wait for the other humans to make the ultimate sacrifice. For now, we have efficiency, conservation, natural carbon sequestration, and the artificial kind.

Wayne Ast
Wayne Ast
Reply to  Dave
1 year ago

This is the human race. Overpopulation is the biggest issue. That along with the consumer bent mentality. There will always be a carbon footprint as long as people walk the earth. Green technologies? Absolutely. Carbon Capture? Awesome. All these things. But the conversation MUST include a reduced population. This is long term, but so are the other options. Food security will be the greatest concern in this new world we are entering. The world in no way can sustain such a large population conveniently and comfortably.

MARKO GERMANI
MARKO GERMANI
1 year ago

Sorry, when you say that it costs only 40$/ton, you are obviously referring to the cost when used in Enhanced Oil Recovery. For transparency sake, you should mention also the cost of the technology without the perks of EOR, or, in other words, the cost for the mere capture and storage. Also, remember that not one single gram of CO2 captured and used for EOR should be counted as “CO2 removed from the atmosphere”.

Andrew James Currie
Andrew James Currie
1 year ago
  • One aspect of CCS that is seldom addressed is that it would be a public good – a non-excludable, non-rivalrous item for which the marketplace has a tendency to not produce it – or not produce in socially-optimal levels. With that being the case, public goods are usually provided by the public sector. For those of us who accept the validity of global warming, many of us would be willing to pay higher taxes to pay for government-run CCS; however, the fact that there are so many people who don’t even believe in anthropological global warming suggests that there would be significant opposition to government-financed CCS. The point being made here is this: the viability of CCS is not just a function of technology, but also politics and economics. With respect to the latter, Global CCS Institute states that “There is a lack of ‘discernible’ cost curves that show actual cost reductions year on year and the potential for reductions into the future”. That, in a nutshell, is a pivotal reason why we shouldn’t expect the private sector to be at the forefront of CCS investment – again, leaving it to the public sector to develop it.

Though it is a grim conclusion, I think it is one worth stating: for
anyone who believes climate change is a mammoth problem that
they don’t want their ancestors to have to endure, there is only
one way to make that happen – don’t have children. If you do have
children – they, and their kids – will end up living in a hotter world;
simply because CCS for the foreseeable future seems as unlikely
to significantly mitigate global warming as the disingenuously
farcical COP21.

{As an aside – thank you to the people who host this site. Its great to read an article with real insight, and then see all the interesting and creative comments that people post in response to it. It is certainly a site worthy of a bookmark].

Chris Heath
Chris Heath
1 year ago

Another Big Oil promoted article ? At the moment, over 800 million tons of CO2 are created by reforming hydrogen from methane – mostly used in refining/distilling oil. (that’s twice the CO2 created in the UK.) So a reduction of 50-90%? Not impressed. And $40 a tonne? That’s a cool $32 billion dollars to not-really-clean-it-very -well. The hydrogen economy, on this basis is a fool’s errand, and on almost every other basis too. It is being sold as “blue hydrogen” – sequestering CO2, when this has yet to be proven. Big Oil (Gas) clearly has vested interests. The Boom in the Hydrogen Economy is a very expensive dead end.

Scott R Clute
Scott R Clute
1 year ago

Yes sir, Always interested in a fellow researcher. Especially an educated scholor.
Thanks for inquiring for comment.Sincerely

Satoru Murata
Satoru Murata
11 months ago

$40/ton x 40 billion tons of CO2 produced each year = 1.7 trillion USD/year to capture all CO2. And you suggest that is a feasible *solution*? I laugh.

Sepehrdad Aryabod
Sepehrdad Aryabod
Reply to  Satoru Murata
8 months ago

I laugh too from real happy because it is possible

owen
owen
10 months ago

What if you were to store it and turn into dry ice?

Noel Kapernick
Noel Kapernick
8 months ago

A really informative and reassuring article.

Annis Breland
Annis Breland
4 months ago

This kind of information needs to be presented to the general public on major TV networks. (Perhaps it has and I missed it.) I’m happy to have found your explanation of the status of carbon capture.