Storing Carbon Dioxide Permanently

By Hinrichsen, Don | Scandinavian Review, Autumn 2016 | Go to article overview

Storing Carbon Dioxide Permanently


Hinrichsen, Don, Scandinavian Review


For the past several decades, scientists from the U.S., Europe, Asia and elsewhere have been trying to find a way to capture and lock away carbon dioxide, the major climate-changing gas that is emitted in large quantities from the combustion of fossil fuels. Conventional efforts at carbon capture and storage (known as CCS) have been dogged by the high costs of capturing the CO2.

Icelandic scientists and colleagues in the U.S. and Europe, thought that one solution worth trying would be to dissolve the carbon dioxide in water and pump the resulting mixture, essentially soda water, into deposits of porous volcanic rock called basalts. Iceland sits atop some of the largest deposits of this type of rock on the planet. Once inserted into the basalt, a natural chemical reaction would solidify the carbon dioxide, turning it into rock.

The Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, located some 20 kilometers east of the capital, Reykjavik, was chosen as the site of the test because it emits carbon dioxide, has lots of water, sits atop a vast field of basalt and also had wells available for the experiment. It is also a fairly large plant, producing 300 MW of electricity along with 120 MW of thermal energy for district heating.

The project, known as CarbFix, was set up by four partner organizations in 2007: The University of Iceland, Reykjavik Energy, which operates the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, the University of Toulouse, France, and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City.

IN 2012 THE PROJECT GOT off to a modest start when the scientific team pumped 250 tons of carbon dioxide, mixed with clean water, some 1,500 feet down into very porous basalt at the Hellisheidi power plant. Researchers had laced the solution with radioactive isotopes in order to be able to monitor and trace its spread through the rock formation.

The scientists were pleased at what happened. Though laboratory experiments had demonstrated that mixing carbon dioxide gas with water and injecting it into basalt would eventually encase the gas in rock, the speed at which the process took place at the injection site was an added bonus. Within one year the submerged pump used to obtain samples of the carbon dioxide mixture as it spread throughout the porous basalt stopped working because it was encrusted with calcite-the mineral formed when the dissolved gas interacts with calcium, magnesium and iron in the basalt to form a solid.

Under more conventional CCS methods, it would take hundreds to thousands of years before the carbon dioxide would be converted into a solid. "Based on tests, the team thought the process would be rapid," commented Edda Aradottir, the project's manager from Reykjavik Energy, "but it happened even faster than we had anticipated!"

Based on the pilot project, industrial scale injection of carbon dioxide began in June 2014. Both carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide (the gas that smells like rotten eggs)-by-products of geothermal energy use-were captured by a gas abatement plant through a simple scrubbing process, dissolved in water and injected back into the basaltic rock under the plant. By the end i of 2015, some 10,000 tons of gases, including 6,300 tons of carbon dioxide, « had been mineralized and captured permanendy.

This year, 2016, the capacity of the gas abatement plant has been doubled, o "We will capture about 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 7,000 tons of £ hydrogen sulfide annually," points out Aradottdr.

Without capturing this greenhouse gas, the Hellisheidi Power Plant would emit around 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 12,000 tons of hydrogen sulfide gases every year. Still, the carbon emitted is just five percent of what a coal-fired power plant of the same generating capacity would spew out over the course of a year.

"Put another way," says Aradottir, "this geothermal plant emits just 21.6 grams of carbon dioxide for every kWh of electricity produced, while a coal or oil fired power plant emits anywhere from 385 to 1000 grams of carbon dioxide per kWh of electricity produced. …

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