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Speeding up carbon capture and storage is path to net zero

Experts predict that CCS will see tremendous growth over the next 40 to 50 years

Icelandic carbon capture plant Reuters/Cover Media Pictures
This direct air capture and storage plant, which permanently removes CO₂ from the air, opened in Iceland in 2021, was the largest of its kind at the time. CCS efforts need to be vastly scaled up to meet climate change targets.

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, a technology first developed in the 1930s, remains a lynchpin in global efforts to achieve a net-zero economy.

After decades of promise, CCS has emerged as a leading option in alleviating emissions of greenhouse gases, thanks to a combination of technological innovation, economic incentives and global imperatives. 

While capturing, compressing, transporting and storing CO2 is a complex process of great technical difficulty, its value and effectiveness are increasingly clear.

In fact, most experts agree that we cannot achieve the climate change mitigation goals established in the 2015 Paris Agreement without it.

In the Middle East, demand for CCS comes from enhanced oil recovery, decarbonising the refining and petrochemical sectors, and capturing carbon from natural gas processing plants, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). 

CCS also provides an ideal platform for low-carbon production of hydrogen from natural gas.

This creates an opportunity for oil and gas producers in the Middle East not only to reduce their environmental footprints, but also to move their businesses towards the fast-growing hydrogen market.

Most experts predict that CCS will see tremendous growth over the next 40 to 50 years.

The IEA projects the amount of CO2 captured annually will grow from about 40 million metric tonnes in 2020 to around 6.9 billion metric tonnes a year by 2070 – more than 170 times as much. If that prediction holds true, CCS will become the second-largest source of emissions reduction, topped only by electrification.

Currently, there are around 40 commercial facilities in operation that use CCS for industrial processes, fuel transformation and power generation. This includes three facilities in the Middle East – in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – which account for about 10 percent of current global CCS capacity.

Another 500 projects are under various stages of development around the world.

Carbon hubs with multiple abatement options are essential if we are to create a better ecosystem and achieve effective coordination. The technologies around the use of pore space, those layers of soil that contain gas or liquids, are being piloted in the Middle East. 

Addressing barriers to CCS expansion

While a global-scale CCS industry might seem inevitable, there are still several problems that must be addressed to accelerate development and make sure the industry is sustainable.

To facilitate additional adoption of CCS, operators must seek to ensure value chain integrity, maximise efficiency and minimise risks. 

First among these is lowering the operational costs involved, especially from energy, maintenance and regulatory compliance.

Maintaining CO2 purity while reducing energy use, safely containing fluids under pressure during transport, monitoring storage sites and injection processes and measuring precise quantities of CO2 during custody transfer are all essential tasks in supporting market mechanics and ensuring regulatory compliance.

Of course, safety is always the top consideration, given the low temperatures and high pressures involved in the CCS process.

Another element that can quickly move CCS projects forward is the potential for deployment in enhanced oil recovery in upstream oil and gas and other industrial uses of CO2. We have recently seen innovation across the carbon value chain offering multiple potential uses. 

Regulatory carbon prices will also need to rise significantly to limit climate change in line with the Paris Agreement, incentivising the deployment of CCS. 

A price rise would also send an important signal to investors to build and fund the large infrastructure projects needed to transition to a low-carbon economy (CCS included).

If systems are designed for integrity and maintained to work reliably as intended, risks are reduced, along with operational costs.

The benefits of automation

Advanced automation technologies can aid engineering, optimise the capture process, reduce downtime, save energy and control corrosion, bringing greater efficiency, reliability and safety to CCS projects.

Digital automation also helps operators to improve the reliability of essential equipment such as compressors, heat exchangers, fans, valves and pumps.

Teams can develop predictive maintenance practices, where potential misfires are identified and rectified before they become actual misfires, helping to maintain integrity, reducing both downtime and safety risks. 

During transport, automated monitoring and measurement helps keep CO2 contaminant-free, properly pressurised, and fully accounted for when it comes to making and receiving payments.

Automation technology can analyse the structural integrity of storage sites, monitor displacement in geologic formations, and manage stored CO2 to ensure it remains within safe limits.

By using technologies that help ensure the integrity of the entire CCS process, both fiscally and physically, companies are well-positioned to move from ambition to action.

Seth Harris is director of sustainability Americas at the US technology company Emerson; Gerardo Munoz is senior manager, sustainability solutions at Aspen Technology, an asset management software company based in Massachussetts.

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