Wouldn’t it be great if, to combat air pollution, there was just a giant air cleaner we could use? Just flip the switch and you get cleaner air, with all the chemicals and emissions caught in a conveniently disposable filter. Beyond the stuff of a child-like imagination, this is, essentially, the concept behind carbon capturing methods. Regardless of how simplistic or technical the explanation is made, a technology that has the potential to capture ~90% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power and industrial plants as well as an estimated 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is bound to turn heads. To better understand it though, it’s important to have a look at the term and how the actual process works.
The key to this term is, of course, the first word, carbon, from the French carbone coined in 1787 by the chemist Louis-Bernard Guyton, Baron de Morveau, as a derivative of the Latin carbo, meaning ‘a glowing coal’; yet, in this sense, it is used specifically as the shortened form of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and first appeared in a 1977 issue of The American Economic Review, stating that: “Table 1 shows the calculated U.S. energy consumption and world carbon emissions along the uncontrolled and controlled paths.” Being the concept of catching and/or retaining an object – carbon dioxide and other gases, in this case – capture, coming via Middle French from the Latin captūra, meaning ‘taking, seizing’, can first be found in Scottish administrator Robert Pitcairn’s compilation, Ancient criminal trials in Scotland (1488–1624), with an entry from 1541-2 stating: “Remission to John Lausone..for his capture and apprehension.” With reference to a modern, green technology (i.e. to combat global warming), however, the shortened form of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) was first noted in Abstracts of Working Papers in Economics in 2003.
While this is a technology that many associate with the green movement, the actual origin of it comes from an unlikely source: fossil fuel extraction. First produced in the early 1970s, captured, condensed carbon dioxide was initially used in enhanced oil recovery, allowing for the extraction of crude oil that would’ve otherwise been inaccessible. In fact, somewhat humorously, the technology is still heavily utilized by and essential to oil and natural gas extraction at the same time as it is being lauded as a solution to fossil fuel emissions.
Without getting overly technical or detail-oriented (which is easy, considering the technology), the process begins with actually capturing the carbon dioxide, which occurs in one of three ways: post-combustion, removing it after fossil fuel combustion; pre-combustion, removing it before combustion; and oxy-fuel combustion, which utilizes oxygen for combustion and better separates and condenses CO2. From the original capture, the CO2 can either be transported by a pipeline (as a gas, solid, or liquid) or by a truck or tanker (as a liquid). Reaching a final destination, the captured CO2 can then be injected into deep geological formations, such as in formations conducive to hydraulic fracturing, oil and gas reservoirs, or basalt formations, like the deep ocean floor.
Unfortunately, nothing is perfect. Some argue that, while this is an emission solution, it does nothing to decrease the usage of fossil fuels; moreover, the impact of carbon capture would also be somewhat lessened by the fossil fuels/materials to construct and manage the additional transportation networks needed to move the captured carbon. Depending on what technology is applied, the cost of converting a large number of power and industrial plants could be a substantial economic hurdle. Finally, with this being a newer concept/technology, questions surrounding storage viability, environmental risks from possible leaks, and health and safety issues during transportation.
Still, despite the risks, our “giant air cleaner” could prove to be very useful, if we can just figure out the best way to operate it.