Last year, when DISCOVER covered the FutureGen carbon capture and storage (CCS) project as one of our top 100 stories of 2009, we noted the nickname some opponents had bestowed on the big-budget experiment: “NeverGen.” That moniker feels even more appropriate now, as the Department of Energy has changed plans and now says it will overhaul the FutureGen idea and build it in a totally different way.
The FutureGen scheme called for building a new CCS demonstration coal plant in Mattoon, Illinois, about 180 miles south of Chicago. The Bush Administration quashed FutureGen because of its hefty budget, but President Obama revived the project with $1 billion in stimulus funding. Now, though, the government says it wants to retrofit an existing power plant across the state in a town called Meredosia rather than build a new one from scratch.
In the new design, the plant would be fed pure oxygen and burn coal, and the exhaust gas would consist of almost pure carbon dioxide. That carbon dioxide would then be piped 170 miles east to Mattoon and injected underground, possibly along with contributions from an ethanol plant in Decatur, Ill., and other industrial plants along the way [The New York Times].
Lately we’ve been covering the doings of DARPA, the Defense Department’s mad scientist wing that conducts kooky scavenger hunts and loses hypersonic gliders. But today the focus is on the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)—an agency President Obama created last year to foster research on creative alternative energy projects rather than futuristic weaponry. ARPA-E, which is part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, announced this week grants totaling $106 million.
The first of the three groups of projects funded by the ARPA-E uses microorganisms to create liquid fuels.
Most of the leading fourth-generation biofuel companies that utilize bio-chemical approaches are modifying the genetic structure of the organism to transform a sugar substrate and secrete either pure “drop in” fuels like diesel, gasoline, or jet fuel, or gasoline substitutes like ethanol or biobutanol [Greentech Media].
The microorganisms in the liquid-fuel experiments need electricity to produce fuel, but many of the researchers are devising ways to use solar energy as the power source so the projects can use renewable fuels to create renewable fuels.
It would be funny if it weren’t so serious: While some skeptics are still ignoring the scientific evidence and insisting that global warming is a hoax, engineers and scientists are already looking for the best “plan B” that can help out humanity in the likely event that the world’s governments can’t agree to cut carbon dioxide emissions fast enough to prevent serious global consequences. Just last week Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers released their picks for the most realistic geoengineering tactics, and now the Royal Society, Britain’s top science academy, has weighed in with its suggestions.
A 12-member working group of scientists, engineers, an economist, a social scientist, and a lawyer spent nearly a year examining technologies, such as fertilizing the oceans to suck down atmospheric carbon dioxide or orbiting giant mirrors to deflect sunlight [ScienceInsider]. The subsequent report (pdf) argues that many of the most-hyped geoengineering ideas are simply too risky, including the proposal to fertilize the ocean to create carbon-absorbing algae blooms. “Most of the things that have gone wrong in the past have happened when we’ve tampered with biological systems” [New Scientist], says John Shepherd, who chaired the report committee.
The report separates geoengineering tactics into two basic approaches: those that reflect sunlight back into space to cool down the planet, and those that remove the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide from the air. Of the two strategies, the report concluded that those involving the removal of carbon dioxide were preferable, as they effectively return the climate system closer to its pre-industrial state. But the authors found that many of these options were currently too expensive to implement widely. This included “carbon capture and storage” methods, which require CO2 be captured directly from power plants and stored under the Earth’s surface [BBC News]. Yet carbon capture and storage projects have been touted as an important response to global warming by power plants and governments alike.
The most practical and immediate steps we can take to slow global warming may be lining roadways with towering “artificial trees” and covering buildings with algae bioreactors, argues a new report from Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The group believes that geoengineering (a broad term for climate-altering technologies) may be necessary to reduce carbon dioxide levels immediately, while governments continue to bicker about how to transition to a low-carbon future. “Geo-engineering is no silver bullet, it just buys us time,” said Tim Fox of the IME, who led the study [The Guardian].
Fox says the study (pdf) looked for techniques that could be rolled out with existing technology. The IME’s first suggestion is to construct hundreds of thousands of “artificial trees”, essentially building- or goalpost-sized structures through which the wind blows. As air passes through them, the “trees” extract CO2 from it for later sequestration [The Register]. The fake trees are intended to be much more efficient at absorbing CO2 than real, biological trees, with current designs estimated to remove one ton of CO2 from the air daily. But even if the devices could be made ten times more efficient, the study found that 100,000 fake trees would be required to absorb the CO2 emissions from all the cars and trucks in the United Kingdom.
In large industrial experiments across the globe, factories and power plants are trying to capture the carbon dioxide that streams out of their flues in order to bury it deep underground. Researchers believe the greenhouse gas will stay put for thousands of years and therefore won’t contribute to global warming, but the costs and long-term effects of the procedure are still unclear. The experiments currently underway are expected to determine whether carbon capture and storage will allow nations to continue burning fossil fuels for energy without ill effects.
In France this month, the first retrofitted power plant will begin to use its new carbon capture and storage technology. The system used by the natural gas-burning power plant will transport and store 60,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year in the nearby depleted gas field at Rousse – once the biggest onshore natural gas field in Europe, but which is now almost empty [The Guardian]. The carbon dioxide will flow through existing pipelines that once brought natural gas to the power plant. While the first new power plant using carbon capture and storage opened last year in Germany, some environmentalists say that the French plant’s retrofit is an important example of how existing industries can be adapted to a future that requires clean energy.
The Obama administration is moving ahead with the development of the “clean coal” technology of carbon capture and storage, even though experts say that the technology’s high costs will prevent it from being widely adopted for decades. Carbon capture and storage requires that carbon dioxide emissions be captured in the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants and factories, and then converted into a liquid and pumped into reservoirs deep in the earth. “I won’t be surprised if we have some of these [systems] in place in the 2020 to 2030 decade, but … it’s going to be on the margins, just because it costs so much” [Reuters], says energy consultant Bill Durbin.
In 2008 the Bush administration canceled the flagship clean coal project, called FutureGen, which called for the construction of a near zero-emissions coal power plant that would test carbon capture and storage technology. The project’s costs had escalated to $1.8 billion by the time it was canceled, but new Energy Secretary Steven Chu has indicated that he may revive at least parts of the project, saying, “We are taking, certainly, a fresh look at FutureGen, how it would fit into this expanded portfolio” [Greenwire].
One strategy that’s been proposed to help humans avoid global warming‘s worst consequences is carbon sequestration, in which carbon dioxide would be pumped into rock formations deep underground to prevent it from warming the atmosphere. Now researchers say they’ve discovered a basalt formation off the Pacific coast that could hold emissions from all U.S. power plants and factories for the next 120 years.
“This is the first good example of a site that is of the scale that can potentially make a dent on the problem of carbon dioxide storage,” said [study author] Dave Goldberg [Wired News]. The porous basalt formation lies on the Juan de Fuca plate off the coast of Oregon, and researchers say its features virtually guarantee that the carbon dioxide would stay safely in place, deep beneath the ocean floor.