From capture to commercialisation. CSIRO’s path to new low emission frontiers
In the move to a low-emissions future, the continued development, commercialisation and scaling of carbon capture technology is increasingly important
The first Model T-Ford rolled off the production line in 1908. It was 22 horsepower, had a highest speed of 65-70 kilometres per hour and a top range of about 65 kilometres.
The latest Tesla S has 1,020 horsepower, a highest speed of 322 kilometres per hour and a top range of 637 kilometres.
Comparing the Model T with the modern-age Tesla is how science leader in CSIRO Energy Dr Paul Feron describes his research area in carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) technology. The core elements of the technology are 100 years old, but the rest has completely changed and continues to evolve rapidly.
In the move to a low-emissions future, the continued development, commercialisation and scaling of carbon capture technology is increasingly important.
As part of the Australian Government’s commitment to net-zero by 2050 and the increase in its 2030 emission reduction projections, 40 per cent of cuts will be achieved by its technology investment roadmap. Those low emission technology advances will come from researchers like Dr Feron.
Over the past 15 years he has been leading CSIRO’s post-combustion capture (PCC) program. It aims to meet the challenge of achieving low cost and efficient capturing of CO₂ in Australia. His area of expertise? Amines.
Amines are a substance formed from ammonia that reacts with and captures CO₂.
They have been used for a century to capture CO₂, particularly in the oil, gas and chemical industries. Model T to Tesla.
Dr Feron’s challenge is to develop them further, increasing their robustness and efficiency, and using them in different environments such as atmospheric gas.
“There’s now a fairly common understanding that CCS needs to be part of the [net-zero] solution. For me, that has been crystal clear from the outset,” he says.
“It’s much easier if you have a portfolio of technologies.”
How amines fit into the low-emissions frontier
Back when Dr Feron started working with the CSIRO on amines for carbon capture technology, the assumption was that capture agents like amines worked fast and well. They don’t. Amines are like a magnet that attracts a piece of iron, Dr Feron explains. The stronger the magnet, the more difficult it is to get the piece of iron off.
The chemists in Dr Feron’s group have developed an understanding of amine solutions and can separate the speed at which CO₂ is absorbed - a key factor in the capital cost of CCUS - and the ease with which CO₂ is released - a key factor in the operational cost of CCUS.
“We can have a very fast reacting CO₂ capture agent but also have an easy release and that has been crucial in getting energy performance down,” he says.
Amines don’t just react to with CO₂. They can react with everything that is in flue gas. So making robust amine solutions with less degradation compared with standard solutions is a key part of the puzzle. Normally, the amines that are used in industry end up as a ‘cocktail of chemicals’ that need to be treated as waste.
“It’s quite different from the amine and solutions that we started off with, 15 to 20 years ago. There's a tremendous improvement compared to that situation,” he says.
The first step in Dr Feron’s work was, as he puts it, ‘kicking the tires’ on developing the technological development and economic analysis of carbon capture. In his case, validating performance through over 5,000 hours of trials capturing flue gases being generated by a coal-fired power station in Victoria's La Trobe Valley. It’s only after this work that commercialisation work has now started in the US.
“It's been a long journey, but it's definitely worthwhile,’’ Dr Feron says.
Connecting capture with storage
Even with working, scalable carbon capture technology, reducing emissions is all about pairing that ability with storing or using that carbon. As a large, stable continent, Australia has plenty of opportunity to store carbon, whether that is offshore in Victoria, or off the Western Australian coast in the world’s largest CCS project, Chevron’s Gorgon project, or onshore in southern Queensland.
Alongside the Australian Government, LETA is helping fund the Carbon Transport and Storage Company (CTSCo) Project, by natural resources company Glencore. The project is designed to demonstrate the capacity and performance of large-scale and permanent capture and storage of carbon emissions in southern central Queensland’s Surat basin. It has the potential to store up to three billion tonnes of captured CO₂.
Dr Feron says site locations like the Surat basin, which are closely connected to industry, are crucial in reducing emissions beyond those from coal-fired power stations. The electricity sector has alternatives in the form of renewables that can assist with decarbonisation, he notes. But industry has less technology at its disposal, increasing the importance of CCUS.
“Aluminium refineries and smelters, steel and cements don’t have a lot of potential to reduce their emissions other than capturing CO₂ … those emissions need to be abated” he says.
The new carbon capture frontiers
The International Energy Agency. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. When he looks over the past decade and the scientific focus on reducing emissions to limit global temperatures, Dr Feron points out that CCUS has been consistently identified as a “must have” technology. But at some point, particularly when it comes to industrial emissions, he argues there will a time when new approaches are needed to maximise emission reductions. The new frontiers? Not treating carbon storage in isolation and looking at directly tackling CO₂ that is being emitted. The search, as Dr Feron describes it, is for the right model to make things happen.
In Australia, that could mean following the examples of the UK’s Net Zero Teesside project and the North Sea projects and establishing CCUS hubs for industry, energy generation, new technologies and storage. Much like the CTSCO Project, which is a key step in developing a Queensland Carbon Hub, Dr Feron says co-locating infrastructure and storage is a key to driving investment in CCUS.
“You need to be able to develop business cases. There needs to be something out there that actually gives you a revenue for the CO₂ emission reduction that you have achieved,” he says.
Part of that business case comes from infrastructure development, part comes from direct or government-backed investment that give credibility to projects, Dr Feron argues. The final element comes from carbon market signals, whether that is direct pricing or tax credits as part of government initiatives.
“We want to use the technology at its lowest cost level. But the lowest cost level will only be achieved once you have deployed that technology at scale,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons for us to look towards the US, where a couple of years ago they they introduced the 45Q tax credit law. That means that you can claim tax credits for a tonne of CO₂ that is stored underground ground or used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR).’’
The new interest Dr Feron is seeing for carbon capture at the moment is around direct air capture. But that’s a challenging ask, with carbon concentrations 250 times lower than traditional flue gases. The foundations are built on Dr Feron’s team’s work with amines, and their experience with scaling and commercialisation.
“It’s very high hanging fruit,” he explains. “But we’ve come up with a couple of processes and different amine solutions that actually look to be able to achieve a much lower CO₂ capture cost. We can see a clear path.”
The lessons of the past are that a portfolio of technologies are needed to reach net-zero, that projects and infrastructure take time to develop, and that investment needs to be encouraged not expected.
“What you get back is emissions reductions on a large scale. And those numbers are quite impressive,” Dr Feron says.
“It’s a bit like pushing a car uphill. If you have four people push a little bit it’s much easier than one.”
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