The Cancer Risk of Carbon Capture
By Sunny Lewis
OSLO, Norway, August 3, 2017 (Maximpact.com News) – China has decided to develop and implement carbon capture and storage (CCS) on a massive scale. But there is a problem. The process of capturing carbon can lead to the formation of carcinogenic chemicals.
To resolve this issue, Chinese researchers are collaborating with Norwegian scientists from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Oslo (UiO) and the Norwegian Technology Centre Mongstad (TCM), the world’s largest facility for testing and developing CO2 capture technologies.
“China is now the world’s most progressive nation when it comes to research on CCS, and they also have the most comprehensive plans for implementation,” says Professor Claus Jørgen Nielsen at the UiO Department of Chemistry.
“They have in fact decided that China is going to be the first nation in the world to implement CCS on a large scale. The reason is of course that CCS is one of the technologies that have the potential to save the global climate,” said Nielsen.
Current short-term, medium-term and long-term projections for global energy demand still point to fossil fuels being burned in quantities incompatible with levels required to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at safe levels in the atmosphere, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
The IEA defines carbon capture and storage as, “…a family of technologies and techniques that enable the capture of CO2 from fuel combustion or industrial processes, the transport of CO2 via ships or pipelines, and its storage underground, in depleted oil and gas fields and deep saline formations.”
“CCS can have a unique and vital role to play in the global transition to a sustainable low-carbon economy, in both power generation and industry,” the IEA says.
Still, the capturing part of the technology comes with a problem that has not been much studied in China, and certainly not in the United States, but where Norway is at the forefront of research.
“The problem is that the process for capturing carbon can give rise to carcinogenic chemicals in the environment. This is a problem that we Norwegians can help the Chinese to avoid, and at the same time we are making an important contribution towards reducing global climate problems,” said Nielsen.
Earlier this year, Nielsen was part of a Norwegian delegation to China that included UiO Senior Executive Officer Kari Kveseth and researcher Liang Zhu from the Amine Research and Monitoring project (ARM).
“China is today the world’s largest investor in research and development overall. The USA remains in the lead of R&D investments per capita, but China is in second place and is still growing. China has developed a remarkable policy with leaders who are convinced that research is going to lead to a renewed nation, and they are thus on the road to becoming the world’s leading R&D nation,” said Kveseth.
CCS falls into two parts. First, carbon in the form of CO2 gas must be captured or separated from the exhaust flue gases produced by combustion in, for example, fossil fueled power stations. After separation, the gas must be stored in a safe and permanent manner, so that it does not escape into the atmosphere.
The Sino-Norwegian cooperation is all about reducing the environmental impact of the technology for capture.
“The common way to capture CO2 from gases makes use of an old technology where amines, which are chemical bases, capture the acidic CO2 gas. When used to capture CO2 from exhaust in a chimney, some of the amines are emitted into the air,” explains Professor Rolf David Vogt, one of the pioneers in the Norwegian-Chinese research collaboration.
But in 2008, Nielsen and colleagues pointed out that amines emitted to air from CO2 capture plants can be broken down into nitroamines and nitrosamines.
The nitrosamines are known for being carcinogenic but short-lived, so they should not be released into the air in densely populated areas. The nitramines are more stable, and little is known about their effects on human health – but there is a risk that they are as bad as the nitrosamines.
The persistence of the nitramines makes it necessary to map their presence in the environment around CCS plants. Where do they end up? Are they stored in soils, so that they can affect the bacterial flora – or are they washed out so that they may be bio-accumulated in the aquatic food chain?
Are there other important sources for nitramines and nitrosamines in the environment?
The Norwegian researchers agree that these questions must be answered before choosing the best technology for capturing CO2.
“If we are to reach the IPCC target of only 2 ºC global warming the CCS technology must account for roughly 30 % of the solution. Then we are going to need qualified researchers, who are going to be educated both in Norway and China in a joint program,” says Nielsen.
The Sino-Norwegian cooperation is already underway. UiO researchers have collaborated with Chinese environmental research institutions for almost 30 years, with projects on acid rain, mercury and water quality. But the collaboration ground to a halt when the late Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. By the end of 2016, relations between China and Norway were normalized after Minister of Foreign Affairs Børge Brende visited China.
The largest Chinese partners in the renewed cooperation are the Air Pollution Control Division at Tsinghua University; Huaneng Power International, which is China’s largest energy producer; and the Institute of Engineering Thermodynamics (IET) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences .
Tsinghua holds a leading role in research on air pollution, especially in Beijing and northern China. During the summer of 2017, their instrument park will be supplemented with measuring instruments from the Department of Chemistry in Oslo. Dr. Liang Zhu will contribute to this in Beijing.
But Norway is not the only country working with China on capturing and storing carbon.
The energy ministers of Canada, China, Norway, and the United States, as well as heads of delegation from Australia and the European Commission, along with leaders from the industry and key organizations, were invited by the International Energy Agency and China to review how to increase collaboration in order to drive further deployment of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS).
The meeting was held in June ahead of the 8th Clean Energy Ministerial, in Beijing. Ministers and panellists discussed the factors that have attracted investment to current CCUS projects and highlighted the importance of identifying where these factors could converge to replicate recent success with CCUS projects.
The discussion centred on the vital role of CCUS in reducing carbon dioxide emissions while ensuring energy security. Participants acknowledged the importance of revenue streams, such as from CO2 utilisation, available transport and storage options, and political leadership in securing investment in CCUS projects.
Hosting the event, IEA Executive Director Dr. Fatih Birol said the IEA would undertake detailed analysis of the conditions and factors that have led to the investment in existing CCUS projects, and how they may be replicated.
The countries represented in the discussion host 19 of the 22 projects currently in operation or construction globally.
China, the host of the 8th Clean Energy Ministerial, recently announced the beginning of construction on the country’s first large-scale CCUS project in Shaanxi Province. China’s Minister for Science and Technology Wan Gang, co-hosted the discussion.
U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said, “I don’t believe you can have a real conversation about clean energy without including CCUS. The United States understands the importance of this clean technology and its vital role in the future of energy production.”
“We have already seen the success of projects like Petra Nova in Texas, which is the world’s largest post-combustion carbon-capture system,” Perry said. “Our experience with CCUS proves that you can do the right thing for the environment and the economy too.”
The system at Petra Nova can capture 1.6 million tons of CO2 each year from an existing coal-fired power plant unit, a capture rate of up to 90 percent from a supplied slipstream of flue gas. By using CO2 captured from the plant, oil production at West Ranch oilfield is expected to increase from around 500 barrels per day to up to 15,000 barrels per day.
Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr said, “Carbon capture, use and storage holds enormous potential to enable economic growth and create jobs, while ensuring the environment is protected.”
“Canada hopes to continue working with domestic and international partners — including through the Clean Energy Ministerial and Mission Innovation — to help us all address the technical and policy challenges around wide scale implementation of this important technology.”
The IEA has consistently highlighted the importance of CCUS in low carbon energy systems. “Our analysis consistently shows that CCUS is a critical part of a complete clean energy technology portfolio that provides a sustainable path for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring energy security,” said Dr. Birol.
“Investment has flowed to CCUS projects where there is a confluence of factors which constitute a viable business case,” he said. “We need to find more such opportunities, where a commercial case for CCS can be built with reasonably modest, well targeted public interventions.”