043 / Carbon Capture & Sequestration
By Khaled Abou Alfa • Published 28th of January, 2021
Neutrons sent. An isotope splits. Fission. Two lighter atoms, heat energy and a few neutrons. Chain reaction. A self-sustaining chain reaction. Nuclear power. For nearly 70 years, the energy generated from this reaction has been used to create electricity. There are now over 440 operational nuclear reactors in the world - with 50 more are under construction. As of 2020, nuclear power accounts for 10% of the world’s energy mix. Originally designed for military purposes, our use of the power contained within atoms has supplied us with a ‘cleaner’ source of energy, when compared to using coal as the source. This repurposed technology came with a high price. A price that has manifest in two ways, nuclear disasters and the slow accumulation of high-level radioactive waste. Nuclear energy is not an ideal solution because it will always generate byproducts that will outlast humanity. This doesn’t even consider the realities of the technology being used for less altruistic reasons.
Those who did embrace this technology have made their inheritance, not just to their own children, but to the children of generations and generations to come. If we all embraced nuclear power, it may solve some of our issues short term, however we would only be pushing our problems to future generations. The reality of accountability, or lack of it, is manifest most acutely in the form of our carbon excess. Our fathers and grandfathers before them have given us a hotter world than the one they inherited. To determine the quantum of this excess, we start with our global average temperature, in the period between 1850-1900, described as our pre-industrial period. This number fluctuated around an imaginary baseline. Sometimes we were over by 0.2°C sometimes we were below. We are currently climbing above 1.1°C from that baseline. Our goal is to remain between 1.5°C and 2°C. To achieve this goal, we have a number of options ahead of us. These range from natural to more draconian measures. For the increasingly pragmatic, part of the solution lies in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).
Technology Ourselves Out
Carbon capture and sequestration is best considered as two separate process streams, that work in synergy with each other. The success and method of one does not depend upon the other. First we must determine both how and when we capture the CO2 that is generated. Then we determines what is to be done with the CO2. In an industrial setting there are several methods available to carry out this process, but the most common methods currently used involve some form of absorption. This is carried out either during or after the combustion.
The problem of course is that CO2 is released in a number of additional streams, not just from industrial applications. This includes from the production of cement and steel to the fleet of vehicles we rely upon across the world. For these instances, one of the technologies that is being considered for wider adoption is direct air capture (DAC). The most promising of these is the Bill Gates backed Carbon Engineering. One of the distinguishing ideas proposed by Carbon Engineering is the use of the captured carbon dioxide as a synthetic fuel. This recognises that we cannot rely on government loans to prop this industry up and that the by product needs to wash its face commercially. While ultimately this will not reduce the amount of carbon in the air, it means that this technology could provide any country in the world the means to produce their own carbon neutral fuels. Most importantly however Carbon Engineering is not operating in the theoretical, having created a functional pilot programme in British Columbia, with intention to expand to a larger facility.
Elon Musk showed how far his interest in this subject extends by offering a $100M prize to the best carbon capture technology. This is part of the Xprize Foundation that hosts competitions to progress technology - their sci-fi board of directors is an impressive collection of minds.
A Deal with the Devil
Opinion is truly divided over the relevance and need for CCS technology. There is a purist division, a technologist angle and the realist who recognises that actually our trials and tribulations will necessitate us exploring every possible solution in order to curb our climate change reality. Unfortunately opinion polarizes even further with the inclusion of the oil & gas industry.
The oil & gas industry has had long running CCS programmes. The captured C02 was used as part of their process - by injecting the gas into a declining reservoir this would enhance oil recovery. The oil & gas industry has a wealth of knowledge of the subsurface and the existing reservoirs in the ground - after all they drilled into them. Sequestering the C02 is an interesting proposition for this industry. Using their knowledge in a different manner makes good business sense. However working and in fact depending on these companies feels morally wrong. Dirty. Moreover, is this solution the correct one to adopt? Pumping CO2 into the ground could come with a price. A price that would need to be paid at a later date, in the same manner as nuclear waste.
If the underground solution doesn’t appeal, the option of pumping the CO2 3000m underwater, relying on physics to keep the CO2 in place is even more audatious. That is the proposition made by the Norwegian government and their Northern Lights CCS programme. A programme that has recently gotten more attention as Microsoft has recently joined as a technical partner.
Carbon capture and sequestration looks at addressing the hard cold realities facing our climate change challenge. This is happening now. Its happening slowly or quickly depending on your perspective. Relying on humans to ‘do the right thing’ has always been a fools game. Even if you don’t agree with the concept, there is much to appreciate about the audaciousness of the efforts.
Lava Hydrogen Battery
Australian company Lavo has beaten Tesla at its own game, by making something demonstrably better than the incumbent. Their battery, creates hydrogen from water, then stores it for when it is needed. The 40kWH capacity is approximately 3 times the capacity of Tesla’s Powerwall 2 but comes at 3 times the price. More interesting however is whether these energy storage technologies become more common place across the domestic market. The sign will be how many more enter this market.
PUBLICATIONS OF NOTE
A collection of Paul Rudolph’s artwork and process makes for a wonderful publication.Brutalist Architecture? Check. Black and white, 20th Century architectural draftsmanship? Check. None of that 3D rendered homogeneity here.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
We have been discussing what it means to be part of the circle economy for a while now. Increasingly the issue will come down to not just reusing and repurposing our items but also changing how we think about new. Increasingly, it will be about getting the streams right. What is waste in one space, can become the raw materials in another. Chop Value is a startup that uses discarded chopsticks as that very raw material to make anything from dominos to table tops and coasters.