Keeping tabs on emissions as carbon capture takes center stage – The Irish Times
Earlier this month, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis published a detailed report on the effectiveness of 13 large-scale flagship projects to capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The institute is a US non-profit organization, funded by a number of global philanthropic foundations and individuals advocating for action on climate change and in particular for an accelerated transition to renewable energy. The carbon capture and storage projects studied represent approximately 55% of all the carbon captured in the world. In turn, the various systems currently operating around the world only capture a combined 0.1% of annual global fossil fuel emissions.
Interest in carbon capture began in the 1970s, with “enhanced oil recovery” in which gas is pumped underground under pressure into an oil field to recover crude oil that otherwise would not have been extracted. . Carbon dioxide is frequently used as an injection gas because it reduces the viscosity of crude oil and is normally a cheaper gas than alternatives.
Pumping carbon dioxide underground to be able to extract even more carbon-based fuel is an obvious contradiction in the context of climate change, especially since over time the stored carbon dioxide can flow back into the atmosphere. .
Among the enhanced oil recovery programs studied, a number did not achieve their original objectives and one was abandoned.
The most successful carbon capture systems are two Norwegian subsea natural gas extraction projects. The carbon dioxide present in the extracted natural gas is filtered and then reinjected into geologically stable sandstone formations underwater.
There are three general approaches to capturing carbon. The Norwegian systems are examples of ‘point’ capture in which carbon dioxide is captured directly at its point of release into the atmosphere, such as in the smokestacks of power stations or fossil fuel steel mills.
Submarines and manned space vehicles use carbon dioxide “scrubbers” to clean their sealed atmospheres for their crews. Such direct air cleaners can be more generally used to capture carbon dioxide from the general atmosphere. However, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a whole is about 0.04%, compared to about 15% in the flue gases targeted by point source capture, making the capture process much more difficult.
Finally, the third major approach is to use biological systems to sequester carbon dioxide, through trees, vegetation and crops.
Several start-ups are innovating with new approaches to carbon capture. Some, like Carbon Clean (UK) and Climeworks (Switzerland), use new material configurations to increase capture efficiency. Novocarbo (Germany) uses pyrogen capture to convert carbon dioxide into “biochar,” a charcoal-like substance that can be used to improve agricultural soil health. LanzaTech (New Zealand and USA) uses proprietary synthetic enzymes to capture carbon dioxide from industrial processes, producing ethanol, acetone and other hydrocarbons as a direct replacement for otherwise mined fossil fuel equivalents crude oil. It filed for an IPO on the Nasdaq at a valuation of $2.2 billion (2.1 billion euros) this quarter.
CarbonSpace.tech is an Irish start-up taking a different perspective. Adopting a “what gets measured, gets done” approach, the company measures carbon emissions and sequestrations from agricultural lands, urban areas and manufacturing complexes. Accurate measurements for the agricultural sector are particularly difficult, due to the land areas involved and the impossibility of deploying permanent carbon dioxide sensors on a large scale.
Manual measurements can only be sporadic, which gives a high level of uncertainty about the complete situation. Instead, CarbonSpace primarily uses satellite data and claims to accurately plot emissions and sequestration at one-hectare granularity anywhere in the world.
Satellite data is calibrated against real long-term conditions on the ground via approximately 150 sensor sites around the world, which collaborate under the name “Fluxnet”. Fluxnet was launched in 1997 by NASA to use data from its (then) new Earth observation satellites Terra and Aqua. There are around 50 Fluxnet sites in Europe, but none are listed in Ireland and only one in the UK (in central London).
Using calibrated data from satellites, CarbonSpace can monitor the evolution of carbon dioxide emissions or sequestration over a given Earth footprint (e.g., a specific farm or forest plantation), with historical data going back to 2000.
Dr. Oleg Demidov is the founder of the company. He explained to me that his primary customers are food production companies and manufacturing operations, which are particularly keen to measure emissions improvements in their global supply chains.
CarbonSpace is a “virtual” start-up in the sense that its staff are located in different cities. Dr. Demidov himself is based in Barcelona. Nonetheless, he chose Ireland as the location for his start-up, both because of the start-up environment in Ireland and the fact that one of his early investors, The Yield Lab, is based in Ireland. Galway.
Carbon sequestration and monitoring has become a clear strategic imperative in the context of climate change. It thus offers a rich opportunity for innovation, start-ups and investors. I expect more participation from Ireland.