Capturing the Invisible

Gina Castell investigates Research Encompassing Both Old and New Power through discussions with Professor Mohamed Pourkashanian

Reducing CO2. One of the big climate change challenges.
Most CO2 in the air comes from power plants and transport. A way of reducing this CO2 has now been discovered and is being developed for the commercial stage, where we capture and store it, using carbon capture technology. When we use Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS or bio-CCS), the CO2 level emissions from power generation actually fall to net negative emissions. This just means that we’re capturing more CO2 than we’re releasing to the atmosphere.  When fossil fuels are burnt, carbon capture technologies are able to capture around 90% of the CO2 produced. This figure changes however when we consider emissions from mining and transporting the fuel. So this all adds up to produce higher CO2 emissions.
When we use sustainably produced biomass, the CO2 levels balance out between what is produced and what is captured – and so it can become ‘neutral’ or near zero. CO2 is absorbed by plants when they grow, so when we capture the CO2 produced from their combustion, we can achieve net negative CO2 emissions: Basically emitting lower CO2 than we produced in the first place – and removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
Last year, COP21 (the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris) set targets to tackle climate change. Every government committed to prevent a temperature increase of 2 degrees in the next 20 years. If the COP21 targets are to be met, then using ‘carbon capture technology and storage enabling technologies’ is essential. There’s no other technology out there that’s ready to be used globally. Carbon capture is the only way.
What the project is trying to do is to look at biomass to generate power. In other words, if we burn biomass, there is much less CO2. So using carbon capture technology with this makes generating power much more sustainable. This technology acts as a bridge between the two types of power, between conventional power and sustainable power, like wind and solar.
Biomass allows us to keep using conventional fuels in the future, but without the CO2 emissions. Countries can continue to rely on fossil fuels, as well as on a mixture of other power sources. So carbon capture makes things more flexible and increases national energy security.
A lot of work has been done on carbon capture from coal, but not so much from biomass. Researchers need to look at the problems we’ll encounter, so there’s a close relationship between industry and academics to see what the issues are.
The biggest obstacle is cost. Carbon capture means electricity costs will increase. Are customers happy to pay extra to mitigate climate change? Do people decide to reduce CO2 emissions? Or do we simply forget about climate change? These are just a few of the questions that pop up, not just with carbon capture, but with all renewable energy technologies.
At the moment, many companies are working on carbon capture from fossil fuels, but have been slow to embrace BECCS. It’s a large international community, involving the UK, US, China, India, South Africa, Mexico and more. In the future, the project hopes to broaden the biomass – from the more typical forestry residue, like branches, to include recycled material, like wood planks and other material which otherwise would have to be landfilled.
In a nutshell, the project is trying to ‘keep the lights on’ using biomass rather than coal, and capture the CO2.
Carbon Capture Technology is the bridge between old and new power.  So let’s march across the bridge! and make our way towards that COP21 target.
Words by Gina Castellheim.

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