Across the world, governments are placing high hopes on carbon capture and storage as the technology that will allow us to go on meeting a large proportion of the world’s growing energy needs from high carbon fossil fuels like coal. The basic technology is straightforward enough; in one variant one burns the coal as normal, and then takes the flue gases through a process to separate the carbon dioxide, which one then pipes off and shuts away in a geological reservoir, for example down an exhausted natural gas field. There are two alternatives to this simplest scheme; one can separate the oxygen from the nitrogen in the air and then burn the fuel in pure oxygen, producing nearly pure carbon dioxide for immediate disposal. Or in a process reminiscent of that used a century ago to make town gas, one can gasify coal to produce a mixture of carbon dioxide and hydrogen, remove the carbon dioxide from the mixture and burn the hydrogen. Although the technology for this all sounds straightforward enough, a rather sceptical article in last week’s Economist, Trouble in Store, points out some difficulties. The embarrassing fact is that, for all the enthusiasm from politicians, no energy utility in the world has yet built a large power plant using carbon capture and storage. The problem is purely one of cost. The extra capital cost of the plant is high, and significant amounts of energy need to be diverted to do the necessary separation processes. This puts a high (and uncertain) price on each tonne of carbon not emitted.
Can technology bring this cost down? This question was considered in a talk last week by Professor Mercedes Maroto-Valer from the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Innovation in Carbon Capture and Storage. The occasion for the talk was a meeting held last Friday to discuss environmentally beneficial applications of nanotechnology; this formed part of the consultation process about the third Grand Challenge to be funded in nanotechnology by the UK’s research council. A good primer on the basics of the process can be found in the IPCC special report on carbon capture. At the heart of any carbon capture method is always a gas separation process. This might be helped by better nanotechnology-enabled membranes, or nanoporous materials (like molecular sieve materials) that can selectively absorb and release carbon dioxide. These would need to be cheap and capable of sustaining many regeneration cycles.
This kind of technology might help by bringing the cost of carbon capture and storage down from its current rather frightening levels. I can’t help feeling, though, that carbon capture and storage will always remain a rather unsatisfactory technology for as long as its costs remain a pure overhead – thus finding something useful to do with the carbon dioxide is a hugely important step. This is another reason why I think the “methanol economy” deserves serious attention. The idea here is to use methanol as an energy carrier, for example as a transport fuel which is compatible with existing fuel distribution infrastructures and the huge installed base of internal combustion engines. A long-term goal would be to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use solar energy to convert it into methanol for use as a completely carbon-neutral transport fuel and as a feedstock for the petrochemical industry. The major research challenge here is to develop scalable systems for the photocatalytic reduction of carbon dioxide, or alternatively to do this in a biologically based system. Intermediate steps to a methanol economy might use renewably generated electricity to provide the energy for the creation of methanol from water and carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations, extracting “one more pass” of energy from the carbon before it is released into the atmosphere. Alternatively process heat from a new generation nuclear power station could be used to generate hydrogen for the synthesis of methanol from carbon dioxide captured from a neighboring fossil fuel plant.