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Is Carbon Capture and Storage a Viable Option?

The countries of the world have reached a consensus that we need to reduce our carbon emissions. One proposal to do that is to switch to a hydrogen economy. The problem is that currently about 95% of the hydrogen we use is made using fossil fuels, which is an energy-intensive process that produces more CO2. The fossil fuel companies plan to get around that is to capture the carbon produced and store it (CCS). The questions that must be answered are how to capture the carbon, where to store it, and how much it will cost.

It is possible to capture the CO2 and there are now several plants currently doing it. Much of the captured carbon is currently used to produce more fossil fuels, so there is little gain in doing it. The chart below will give you an idea of the magnitude of the problem. Currently, we are adding 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. The amount of carbon currently captured is 0.006% of that, an amount so small that it could not even be seen on the chart.

If carbon capture could be scaled up to capture most of the CO2 we are emitting, then where would we store it? The most obvious solution is to store it where it came from. The carbon from coal is mostly from strip mines and open mines, and it cannot be stored there. For petroleum and methane, storing it back underground is a possibility. However, burning them combines them with oxygen – and increases the mass and volume by a factor of two or three. It would be impossible to store more than a fraction of the CO2 back underground.

Assuming we could capture the carbon and find a place to store it, what would be the cost? This would involve acquiring the land, building the thousands of CCS plants required, and providing the energy necessary for the process. That cost has been estimated to be about $5 trillion a year, at current prices, for the rest of this century. There are certainly much less expensive options available.

So there you have it, the amount of CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere is far too great to capture, there is no adequate place to store captured CO2, and the cost would be astronomical. However, the fossil fuel companies are willing to try if we subsidize their costs, fund their research, and wait 80 years. It will be painfully obvious, long before then, that CCS is unworkable. The best plan is obviously to stop putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a solution the fossil fuel companies are unwilling to accept.

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