Imagine if you could take the CO2 you've just emitted, capture it and store it deep underground. The technology exists. A British firm has been asked by Cyprus to create a carbon-capture solution that could potentially house unwanted greenhouse gases from other countries as well.
"Today the world is treating CO2 emissions the way we treated rubbish in the past," says Stuart Haszeldine, a professor of carbon capture and storage at the University of Edinburgh and director of Scottish Carbon Capture and Storage (SCCS).
"We produce them and emit them into the atmosphere just like we used to put our rubbish on the street because it was cheaper."
Eventually people decided that rubbish in the street was unbecoming of civilised society. Society is now moving in the same direction when it comes to CO2 emissions. While most of the world's CO2-cutting efforts focus on limiting the emissions, companies and governments are expanding the atmospheric equivalent of the lowly rubbish collection: carbon capture and storage (CCS).
The concept is far from new. This is how CCS works: when large production facilities such as coal plants and steel mills produce carbon dioxide, the CO2 gases are immediately separated from other gases. The CO2 gas is then compressed into a liquid and transported to its final destination via pipeline or a vehicle.
The destination is the crucial part: in order not to seep out into the atmosphere again, the carbon dioxide has to be injected into rock formations far beneath the surface.
Several initiatives are already underway, including Chevron's Gorgon project off the coast of Australia. Reykjavik Energy's CarbFix project, in turn, allows CO2 to be inserted into Iceland's basaltic rock.
But Cyprus, benefitting from a growing hydrocarbons industry in the eastern Mediterranean and being a relatively new player in the hydrocarbon sector, can build its production – and carbon-capture – infrastructure from scratch.
"Retrofitting production facilities to capture CO2 is very expensive," notes Haszeldine. "Designing the facilities with CO2 capture abilities from the beginning takes one step away." The Centre for Green Development and Energy Policy at the University of Nicosia selected SCCS, known for its storage work in the North Sea, to develop the Cypriot solution.
"We're currently at a very initial stage of a scoping study," explains Marios Valiantis of the University of Nicosia. "The main focus will be to first capture CO2 emissions from large point sources, for example industrial sources."
Catching the carbon dioxide as it leaves the plant is a highly efficient method. According to Britain's Department of Energy and Climate Change, power facilities that have been fitted with CCS can capture 90% of their CO2 emissions.
SCCS and the University of Nicosia are now identifying a suitable storage site for Cyprus's emissions underneath the Mediterranean. "You need stone that has a natural lid," explains Haszeldine. "The geology of Cyprus looks as though it can be suitable." This is because 18,000 feet below sea level the ground features a layer of salt that can form a natural lid for liquefied CO2. If the partners find porous rocks, they predict they'll be able to store much more CO2 than Cyprus produces. "Cyprus might be able to offer CO2 storage to neighbouring countries such as Italy and Israel," predicts Haszeldine.
Carbon storage presents an attractive climate fix. North Sea sites, for example, allow Britain to offer large-scale storage to other European countries. The catch: for now it only captures CO2 emissions from energy production. Saving the atmosphere from the other two thirds of our CO2 emissions still means reducing emissions.
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