Carbon Control

Energy production from burning fossil fuels is a classic example of the failure of capitalism to protect us from harm. The fossil fuel industry privatizes profits while socializing costs. Fossil fuel combustion products damage our health and the environment and endanger our future due to global warming.

Some laws have been enacted to protect us. Coal-fired power plants have to have filters to remove some particulate matter and substances which contribute to ill health yet as many as fifty thousand deaths a year are attributed to fossil fuel emissions. These are deaths not accounted for by capitalism.

The biggest threat to global stability and human health is now climate change. There are currently no limits on fossil fuel emissions to protect us. One way to make the user pay the costs would be to put limits on the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emitted. The process to remove CO2 is called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS.)

If CCS can be made to work, we could have our cake and eat it too. That is, we could have the benefits of energy from burning fossil fuels without negative consequences. Basically, CCS is a process of capturing the Carbon Dioxide waste stream from a power plant and then putting it somewhere other than the atmosphere.

The problem is that it is neither cheap nor easy. CCS technology could double the construction and operating costs of a power plant. The major limitation is the need for storage sites such as airtight underground caverns or the ocean depths, where the carbon dioxide would stay for a long, long time. Like forever.

The best site would be a geologic formation where subsurface rock naturally reacts with carbon dioxide via a process that chemically mineralizes it. These formations exist but are few and far between. We need enough storage space for about five billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

Without mineralization, storage becomes much more difficult. Carbon dioxide, a gas at normal pressure, would need to be pumped into storage wells and the wells then capped to prevent release. At atmospheric pressure, it would require over six thousand cubic miles of underground open space per year. This kind of space doesn’t really exist, hence pressurization is necessary to reduce the volume. The higher the pressure the more difficult it will be to contain the stored gas. Any leakage will increase the cost both economically and energetically- all that capture, transportation, and pressurization uses energy.

The only way to store the five billion tonnes of carbon dioxide produced every year seems to be by pumping it at high pressure into every hole in the ground that we can find, plugging the hole, and then hoping that the cap doesn’t come off – forever. But what if a storage site does burp? It could be lethal for just about every living thing in the area of the release of CO2.

Carbon capture and storage in the last analysis is expensive, uses a lot of energy, and is quite risky to all life in the area of the storage wells. The only real solution is to abandon the use of fossil fuels and get all our energy from clean, sustainable energy supplies.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

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