To roughly offset the carbon footprint of the life of an average 47-year old living in the UK, one would have to plant 2,250 trees. And then let them grow for 50 years, costing time, money, and land. Carbon dioxide is a long-lasting greenhouse gas that traps heat, causing a rise in global temperatures, and is the driving force for climate change.
Across the globe, varieties of verdant forests serve as carbon dioxide sinks, where the gas is flushed out of the atmosphere by photosynthesis. Picturing these expanses as the lungs of the Earth does not go amiss. However, even our deep blue oceans are now absorbing CO2 like never before.
The natural world in its current state just cannot counterbalance the endless stream of emissions we are producing. Though the energy transition is happening, transformation of sectors is complex, lengthy, and challenging. Time is of the essence to meet international and national targets: to cut down on carbon dioxide emissions to net-zero by 2050 for the UK. And most of the plans to meet these targets require carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS).
What Is CCUS?
CCUS is a series of technologies and processes that help to limit the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. Carbon capture is where carbon dioxide emissions from industry may be isolated into a pure and compressed stream using a recyclable solvent. The stream could then be transported away and stored in certain geological formations or used for other purposes.
Although these techniques have been known for decades, it has a relatively high-cost and there is a lack of incentive, and policy has stalled progress. Having experienced cost reductions in recent years though, exciting projects are beginning to take off and be conceptualised today for CCUS.
The enormity of carbon dioxide emissions cannot be tackled with CCUS alone
Currently, there is about 40 MtCO2 (megatons of carbon dioxide) of annual capacity across all carbon capture facilities around the world. For context, an estimated 36.42 GtCO2 was produced globally in 2019, almost a thousand times greater. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that should all current projects be completed, the capacity would increase to 130 Mt/year. Still, a drop in the ocean. The enormity of carbon dioxide emissions cannot be tackled with CCUS alone, instead an effective mix of renewables, hydrogen, and other approaches are needed to cut the annual emissions figure.
Carbon capture first got its large-scale commercial use in a 1970’s America, to recover crude oil. Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) has been the most widespread use of carbon dioxide with financial incentive. However, EOR as an extraction method has its demand in the price of oil, sometimes negatively affecting demand for CCUS itself. Now, there are large-scale facilities that serve other uses and focus on storage, which are beginning to be created and identified.
The UK and CCUS
The UK’s carbon capture activities have changed significantly over the past decade. The coal-fired Longannet Power Station in Falkirk, Scotland, was poised to secure £1 billion government funding to set up the UK’s first large-scale commercial carbon-capture project, in 2009. Despite a successful demonstration, and a partnership with Shell, in 2011 the funding was scrapped. This was due to there being no economically viable way to develop the infrastructure for CCUS. As a result, Longannet became destined to be a fossil fuel relic of the UK’s past, having been decommissioned in 2016. Fitted retrospectively to industrial plants, carbon capture reducing CO2 emissions can protect the longevity, investments, and jobs that are attached to a plant.
The focus of the investment is given to so-called ‘SuperPlaces’
Today, the government has an embrace for carbon capture technologies. As a part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, announced last November, CCUS gets a great deal of attention; up to a £1 billion by 2025 in public investment and support for 50,000 jobs by 2030 is planned. The focus of the investment is given to so-called ‘SuperPlaces’: North West, North East, Scotland and Wales, and the Humber regions.
To transform the ‘SuperPlaces’ into low emitters, CCUS would be hugely beneficial to even the most difficult to decarbonise industries such as steel and cement. These are known as ‘hard to abate’, where a renewable energy pathway would be unsuitable to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Two industrial clusters, Humberside and Teesside, aim to have functioning and commercial CCUS by the mid-2020s, paving way for them to become net-zero altogether.
Humber and Teesside Projects
Using shared pipelines and infrastructure, cutting costs, the captured carbon dioxide would be stored in a saline aquifer of the North Sea, called Endurance. Both the Net Zero Teesside, and Zero Carbon Humber projects aim to achieve one of the first net-zero industrial clusters in the world. To do this, major oil and energy companies are behind the projects, BP, Equinor, Shell, Total and others are in collaboration through the ‘Northern Endurance Partnership’.
? We're delighted to announce, together with @ZC_Humber, the formation of the Northern Endurance Partnership (NEP) to accelerate the development of offshore CO2 transport and storage infrastructure in the UK North Sea, which will serve our #CCUS project. pic.twitter.com/L60XN0JfcM— Net Zero Teesside (@NetZeroTeesside) October 26, 2020
Equinor is also leading Zero Carbon Humber’s anchor project of producing the world’s largest hydrogen production plant, called H2H Saltend. This uses Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) to produce hydrogen in a low emissions way, using natural gas, termed blue hydrogen. The hydrogen can go on to be used as a clean, zero emission fuel.
The biomass and coal-fired Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire also has carbon capture plans. Using Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECSS), the power station aims to become the first carbon-negative power station in the world. BECSS achieves negative emissions by capturing and storing CO2 from burning biomass pellets ultimately derived from sustainably managed forests.
Carbon capture technology is also thought to be able to directly draw out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, through Direct Air Capture (DAC). Although, this is expensive and much more difficult to achieve as the carbon dioxide in the air is much more dispersed compared to industrial emission streams.
Popular crisp brand Walker’s will also make use of Carbon Capture and Usage (CCU) from 2022 in Leicester. Carbon dioxide, captured from a beer brewery’s fermentation emissions, is mixed with potato waste, and turned into fertiliser. The fertiliser is then used for the potato crop for crisps and saves the brewery’s and fertiliser production emissions.
This is just one application of CCU that has been trialled. Other usages include locking CO2 away in concrete, use for carbonated drinks, and plastics.
In a world of energy transition, construction of wind turbines and nuclear plants, it seems like using CCUS technology is allowing industrial emitters to keep on emitting. However, CCUS is a potentially fruitful technology. Serving industries that are hard to transform by renewable energy, it is one helpful solution to the crisis of our time. It goes further, helping to kickstart a hydrogen economy, and even tinkering with the possibility of negative emissions by BECCS and DAC – reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.
CCUS has its heart in reducing, reusing, and recycling. Having used captured CO2 to extract oil by EOR, today giving a use to CO2 is prizeworthy and novel. One of the world’s richest men, Elon Musk, has given publicity to and offered a $100 million prize for CCUS technology, as it is crucial in achieving our targets to combat climate change.
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