Droughts and floods, rising temperatures, rapid increases in Arctic and Antarctic ice melting, hurricanes, tornados, and monsoons-many scientists believe the wild weather variations that trigger these events are caused by a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide (CO2).
But amidst all the doom and gloom, the International Test Centre for CO2 Capture (ITC) at the University of Regina is exploring ways to slow down the rise in emissions released through human activity.
"Capture and storage has become one of the big issues and one of the biggest ways to mitigate CO2," says ITC Director Paitoon Tontiwachwuthikul. "It is not going to be a total solution, but it will help significantly, especially in Western Canada."
While not every country signed and subsequently ratified the Kyoto Protocol, Tontiwachwuthikul says that even non-ratifying countries like the U.S. and Australia recognize the problem and want to solve it in their own way.
Drawing scientists and researchers from the private and public sectors in Saudi Arabia, Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere, the ITC has approximately a dozen organizations participating in the research. The bulk of the work is being conducted by 10 professors and about 40 research assistants, including graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, engineers, and technicians.
The ITC is currently based in two locations. The first is a lab at the University of Regina featuring a series of absorption units and reactors where CO2 interacts with various chemicals used for its capture, as well as state-of-the-art sensing equipment to analyze the interaction of the various chemicals known as "amines" and CO2. Research activities at this lab focus on developing new technologies to capture CO2, including cost-effective, efficient chemicals that can strip CO2 from hot exhaust gas streams such as those found on industrial boilers and coal-fired power plants. We have some chemicals which can reduce the energy needed for the process by 20 to 35%," says Tontiwachwuthikul.
The second location is the pre-commercial-scale technology demonstration plant at SaskPower's Boundary Dam Power Station near Estevan, Saskatchewan. Here researchers can use real flue gas to "get a true picture of all the problems that can develop with CO2 capture technology," says Bob Stobbs, Project Leader with SaskPower's Power Production Group.
So how exactly will CO2 capture work for both environment and industry? The answer lies in finding an economical solution that will turn coal into a viable, clean power source. That way, not only would CO2 emissions be reduced, but coal could be used as a environmentally friendly power source. According to Stobbs, SaskPower is developing a plan that would put clean coal into service by 2011-provided the business case is strong and regulatory approvals are received. -Right now, all the costs are based on studies-nobody has done this at full scale to determine what it will really cost and how it will perform," says Stobbs.
And capture is only one half of the equation. Once you've got the CO2, you have to do something with it. In the short term, that means storing it deep underground.
The capacity to store CO2 underground is almost unlimited, but somebody has to pay for somebody else to store CO2, Stobbs says. Some oil companies are already buying the available CO2 to assist in the extraction of oil, but it all comes down to if the CO2 can be efficiently captured. Whether the CO2 is used for enhanced oil recovery or simply stored deep underground, the price per tonne will be guided by emission credit exchanges established around the world, which operate the same way as stock exchanges.
"The market for this technology is very large in other parts of the world, such as China and Middle Eastern regions," says Tontiwachwuthikul. "But it's going to take five to 10 years before the technology is widely in place, so we have to start now."
To many people, the phrase "clean coal" is an oxymoron.
But Bob Stobbs, Project Leader with SaskPower's Power Production Group, is convinced that clean coal technology will allow a local, abundant resource to be used in an economical and environmentally responsible manner. South of the border, the U.S. Department of Energy projects that coal-fired generation will increase another 7% from 50% of the power mix today by 2030.
A typical natural gas-fired power plant emits roughly 40% of the CO2 that a coal-fired power plant does and so it is considered clean energy. "But when we clean up coal, we're talking about being almost 100% better than natural gas in terms of CO2 content,â€ says Stobbs, who is also Executive Director of the Canadian Clean Power Coalition, a consortium of power, mining, and energy research bodies in Canada and the U.S.
A clean version of coal makes tremendous economic and environmental sense. Coal resources are readily available and could last hundreds of years in comparison to the costly plant development for nuclear energy, and the limited reserves and skyrocketing prices of natural gas.
Current technology virtually eliminates sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions, nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter, and even mercury from coal-fired plants. With further technology development, coal-fired plants could soon define a whole new level of clean energy. As a controlled source of CO2, coal-fired power plants, could ultimately lead to other economic and environmental benefits such as converting CO2 into "green" fuels such as ethanol, methanol, and biodiesel.
"CO2 is going to have the biggest impact on the economics of running a power plant," says ITC Director Paitoon Tontiwachwuthikul. To put that into perspective, the current cost of electricity production is 10 to 15 cents per kilowatt hour. Assuming the whole cost of CO2 capture has to be borne by the customer, he says the cost would increase by about two to three cents per kilowatt if we switched to clean coal. Is the nominal financial increase worth the potentially monumental decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants?
"This is a societal issue-are we willing to pay a few cents more for our energy? asks Tontiwachwuthikul. "Europe and Japan are already paying five to 10 cents more than us. Are their economies collapsing? The answer is absolutely not!
The International Test Centre for CO2 Capture has attracted significant private-sector and corporate support from around the world. A number of partners are interested in the ITC researchers' discoveries, while others are using the unique facilities and world-leading research capacity to develop their own intellectual property for CO2 capture. Partners include:
Academia: University of Regina (Lead Institution), University of Waterloo, and University of British Columbia.
Energy and Engineering: HTC Purenergy, Babcock and Wilcox (B&W), and Fluor Daniel.
Public Sector: Government of Canada (Natural Resources Canada), Government of Saskatchewan (Industry and Resources), Government of Alberta (Science and Innovations), and Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth (Japan).
Oil and Gas: Nexen Energy Inc., EnCana, Petróleo Brasileiro S/A, and Saudi ARAMCO.
Power Utilities: SaskPower
E-ON, United Kingdom
The European-based CO2 Capture Project describes efforts by eight of the world's leading energy companies to reduce the cost of CO2 capture from combustion sources.
Find out more about climate change initiatives in Europe.