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The Quest to Capture and Store Carbon

We are years or even decades from a viable system of carbon-free coal-fired power stations. But have you noticed how much activity there is in this field these days? The world’s first carbon capture and storage (CCS) power plant began operations in Germany last month. Built by the Swedish utility Vattenfall, the pilot facility is...


We are years or even decades from a viable system of carbon-free coal-fired power stations. But have you noticed how much activity there is in this field these days?

The world’s first carbon capture and storage (CCS) power plant began operations in Germany last month. Built by the Swedish utility Vattenfall, the pilot facility is designed to collect 80 to 90 percent of the carbon dioxide released from burning coal and pipe it into storage deep underground.

It is hoped that the test installation will provide guidance for the construction of a much larger 200-300 MW demonstration power plant to be built by 2015.

File photo of a conventional power station courtesy USGS

There is hope that CCS can make a real contribution to resolving the crisis caused by the collision between energy and climate.

Developing economies like China and India are ramping up power consumption, turning increasingly to coal as a vast source of affordable energy. But this accelerates the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing the planet to grow ever warmer.

CCS may be a way to harness the world’s abundance of coal while minimizing the impact on the environment.


Coal supplies half of the electricity generated in the U.S. The country’s coal reserves are so big that the U.S. is sometimes referred to as the Saudi Arabia of oil.

Photo by James P. Blair/NGS

Skeptics are not convinced that CCS is a silver bullet to fix the energy/climate conundrum. The technology is very expensive and has yet to demonstrate that it can be effective on a big scale. If it did work, critics say, it would prolong the addiction of world economies to fossil fuels and delay conversion to clean, sustainable sources of energy such as sunlight and wind.

And no one knows for sure if it really is possible to permanently secure billions of tons of carbon dioxide underground.

In spite of these concerns, there is growing interest in CCS.

The European Union is considering whether to offer as much as seventeen billion U.S. dollars in incentives to build CCS power stations. If the EU is convinced that the technology can work and that carbon can be stored underground safely, it could provide carbon offset credits to help pay for as many as 60 CCS power plants in Europe.

Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has reached out to world governments for support for a new international carbon capture and storage institute. The UK and Norway have indicated they will join the effort and former U.S. President Bill Clinton publicly endorsed the initiative last week.

CCS promises to trap carbon dioxide from power stations before it can be emitted into the air. But what about carbon dioxide emitted from aircraft and road vehicles? And how do we recover the CO2 that’s already been dumped into the atmosphere in dangerous quantities?


A year ago Richard Branson announced the Virgin Earth Challenge, a prize of U.S. $25 million for “whoever can demonstrate to the judges’ satisfaction a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of Earth’s climate.”

Inventors have been busy. Only yesterday University of Calgary climate change scientists claimed they had invented a “scrubber” to efficiently capture carbon dioxide directly from the air.

Theory “suggests that air capture might only be a bit harder than capturing CO2 from power plants,” said David Keith, a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering. “We are trying to turn that theory into engineering reality.”

Photo courtesy University of Calgary

Keith and his team built a scrubbing tower (seen in the adjacent photo) they said was able to capture the equivalent of about 20 tonnes per year of CO2 on a single square meter of scrubbing material — the average amount of emissions that one person produces each year in the North America-wide economy.

“This means that if you used electricity from a coal-fired power plant, for every unit of electricity you used to operate the capture machine, you’d be capturing 10 times as much CO2 as the power plant emitted making that much electricity,” Keith said

The technology is still in its early stage and, like CCS, is far from proven.

And there also remains the problem of where to safely store carbon scrubbed out of the air.

Old coal mines, depleted oil fields, and other cavities deep in the earth are considered to be potential vaults to sequester the gas.

But what would the consequences for the planet be if an earthquake or some other event cracked a vault, releasing an enormous belch of the stored gas back into the atmosphere?

More from National Geographic News:

Clean Coal? New Technology Buries Greenhouse Emissions

U.S. Coal-Burning Boom Drastically Warmed Arctic

The End of Oil? Breakthrough Turns Coal Into Clean Diesel

More From Elsewhere on the Web:

Seeing beyond the trees in the riddle of carbon capture (Canberra Times)

Report: Carbon capture may pay for itself by 2030 (International Herald Tribune)

Clinton supports carbon storage plan (The Age, Australia)

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn