As the urgency increases to head off the worst effects of climate change, the airwaves and internet are buzzing with talk about how carbon capture and carbon storage support various strategies to keep excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
“The fact is, carbon capture and storage underpin just about every path to reining in climate change and limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” says George Guthrie, a program manager for carbon capture at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Carbon capture and storage involves two key components, both technically achievable today: capture of carbon dioxide from complex gas mixtures and permanent carbon dioxide storage in underground reservoirs.
“Capture of carbon dioxide at some large industrial sources has been done commercially for decades,” Guthrie says. The technology centers on separating carbon dioxide from other gases as they leave the smokestack. “The Department of Energy [DOE] has invested in research—including at Los Alamos—to extend carbon dioxide capture technologies to a wider range of operations, such as natural gas power plants and other industrial processes. Commercially available solutions exist today to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from some sources by 90 to 95 percent.”
These capture technologies can be applied to converting natural gas to low-carbon hydrogen. New technologies go one step further, capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air—a concept born at Los Alamos in the 1990s. Systems are already being tested and deployed commercially today, and the costs are coming down.
The second key component of carbon capture and storage is permanent geologic storage of carbon dioxide. “We know from nature that carbon dioxide can be stored underground for geologic periods,” Guthrie says. One example is McElmo Dome, a geologic reservoir in southwest Colorado that has naturally accumulated more than 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide.
Research by Los Alamos, Sandia National Laboratories, New Mexico Tech, and others has found reservoirs across the nation that could sequester hundreds of billions of tons or more. For comparison, annual emissions in the United States are around 6 billion to 7 billion tons.
Moving from research on carbon capture and storage to deployment has gained momentum under the Intermountain West Energy Sustainability & Transitions (I-WEST) initiative. With sponsorship by the DOE, Los Alamos is leading this initiative, which brings together regional universities and colleges, research institutions, local communities, and Native American nations across six western states (Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) to create a sustainable-energy economy.
Through a place-based approach using workshops and other outreach that puts people first, I-WEST is learning about stakeholders’ unique concerns and needs regarding jobs, energy use, and environmental stewardship. From that input, I-WEST will develop a roadmap to a carbon-neutral economy in the region—and it’s already clear that carbon capture and storage will be a key piece of the puzzle. ★