How About Using that Captured Carbon?

carbon shoes
These “shoes without a footprint” were made from carbon that was captured from power production. Photo courtesy NRG

Imagine if the carbon dioxide (CO2) that emerges from smokestacks at coal- and natural gas-fired power plants and steel and cement facilities could actually be used for something.

Some innovators are imagining just that.

For even more creative ideas, just look at the semi-finalists for the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon X Prize.

Research teams from around the world submitted ideas for using CO2 in building materials, paint, fertilizers, plastics, and even toothpaste. Other ideas include CO2-based fuels and carbon nanotubes that could be used to make environmentally sustainable lithium-ion and sodium-ion batteries. The prize will be awarded in 2020 after the top ideas are tested in real-world conditions.

Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is contributing to a changing climate that is bringing more frequent and intense heat waves, downpours, and drought and rising sea levels. Capturing CO2 from power plants and industrial sources will help reduce these harmful emissions.

In the U.S., we have been capturing CO2 from manmade sources such as commercial-scale natural gas processing plants since the early 1970s. We can offset the costs of capturing and storing carbon dioxide and increase the number of carbon capture projects if we put the CO2 to work.

One way this is already being done is with carbon dioxide enhanced oil recovery (CO2-EOR), where pressurized CO2 is pumped into already developed oil fields to get out more of the oil. CO2-EOR boosts domestic energy production, makes use of already developed oil fields, and stores carbon dioxide underground.

C2ES co-convenes a coalition of industry, labor, and environmental groups encouraging greater deployment of carbon capture technology for CO2-EOR. There’s bipartisan support for incentivizing technologies to capture carbon dioxide from manmade sources and put it to use in marketable ways.

The U.S. produces 300,000 barrels per day, or nearly 3.5 percent of our annual domestic oil production, through CO2-EOR. But we’re mostly using CO2 that isn’t from manmade sources.

For every barrel of oil produced using manmade CO2, there is a net CO2 storage of 0.19 metric tons even considering the emissions from the oil, according to the International Energy Agency and Clean Air Task Force. In other words, EOR using power plant CO2 results in a 63 percent net reduction of the total injected volume of CO2 or a 37 percent reduction in the life cycle emissions from oil.

At the end of 2016, NRG completed construction on Petra Nova, the first American retrofit of a coal-fired power plant to capture CO2 emissions, which are then used for EOR. The Texas project was on schedule and on budget. It’s capturing more than 90 percent of the CO2 from a 240 MW slipstream of flue gas from an existing coal unit at the WA Parish plant. It’s now the largest project of its kind in the world.

Finding more ways to turn carbon dioxide from an energy and industrial sector waste product to a useful commodity could spur the development of new technologies and products while limiting climate-altering pollutants. There’s promise, but also scientific, regulatory, and market challenges.

The Global CO2 Initiative, which advocates a mix of policy, research funding, collaboration, and infrastructure improvements to accelerate commercial deployment, estimates that the size of the global CO2 non-EOR utilization market could be as large as $700 billion by 2030. Aside from EOR, we could be using 7 billion metric tons of CO2 per year for fuels, concrete, polymers and more. That’s about 15 percent of current global CO2 emissions.

The new administration and new Congress need to consider how best to incentivize continued research, development, and commercial-scale application of CO2 utilization. With the right policy incentives, the U.S. can take a leadership role in this vital technology.

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