Carbon Storage

What is carbon storage?

Carbon capture and storage (CSS) is about capturing the carbon in the atmosphere (often existing as carbon dioxide gas) and storing it in forms that keeps it out of the atmosphere. This process is sometimes also known as carbon sequestering, and may take place as part of natural processes in nature (eg. photosynthesis) or manmade processes.

Why carbon storage?

Global warming is considered to be one of the most serious environmental issues we’re facing today. While there is still debate in the media about whether global warming is real or not, the general consensus in the scientific community is that global warming is quite real and could have dramatic consequences for life on Earth. The fact is that the two last decades were the warmest since the time global temperatures were first recorded. Temperatures have risen all over the world and, if nothing is done, they will simply continue to rise. As Stephen Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the Cambridge University, said in the movie, The 11th Hour, “the danger is that the temperature increase might become self-sustaining if it has not done so already... the worst-case scenario is that Earth would become like its sister planet, Venus, with a temperature of 250 centigrade and raining sulfuric acid. The human race could not survive in those conditions.”

And a major contributor of global warming is the increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and other green houses gasses in the atmosphere, brought about by Mankind’s rampant use of fossil fuels for energy supply since the start of the industrial revolution.

As the world searches for ways to mitigate global warming, one of the many ideas that have come up is carbon storage.

We are not talking about storing the carbon gases in containers – there won’t be enough space to accommodate the tons of carbon dioxide and green house gases that are emitted from the various industries and power plants every day. Instead, CSS takes the form of storing carbon in deep geological formations (such as gas fields and oil fields), in the ocean (storing it in the deep seafloor) or by fixating the carbon dioxide gas into inorganic carbonates.

The costs of manmade carbon storage

The costs behind CSS could be high.

First, it is financially costly. The carbon gas produced by the various industries has to be captured and compressed, before the gas can be transported (mainly through pipelines) to the storage site, and all these processes involve high costs. From the search for suitable carbon storage sites, to the retrofitting of industrial chimneys and power plants to be able to capture the carbon gas, to the construction of the pipelines from source to storage site, substantial amounts of expertise and resources are involved.

There is also an environmental cost of artificial carbon sequestering with today’s existing technologies. According to a pulication by Greenpeace, “False Hope – Why carbon capture and storage won’t save the climate”, a power plant with CSS capabilities could use up 10 to 40 % of the energy produced for its carbon sequestering process. This means that the power station would have to burn more fossil fuels and generate more energy, in order to meet the demands for energy and carry out carbon sequestering. If this situation is applied to all power plants, it would accelerate the production of carbon dioxide gas (though presumably less would be released into the atmosphere as they would be stored) and other harmful gases, as well as hasten the exhaustion of the non renewable fossil fuels.

Despite the costs of CSS systems, there is also no guarantee that the sequestered carbon could be permanently stored.

Moreover, carbon storage is not without risks. One of the major risks with carbon storage is leakage.

A leak of the stored carbon into the atmosphere would understandably increase the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, contributing to the green house effect and global warming. Not only that, in case of a deep geological storage leak, it could affect drinking water and acidification of soils. In the case of leakages from oceanic storage pools, it could change oceanic chemistry in the zone where carbon is stored, leading to ocean acidification and disrupting marine life in that zone.

Some scientists have observed how leakages from naturally sequestered carbon dioxide had led to catastrophic outcomes and have inferred the potentially disastrous effects of storing carbon artificially. For example, a major leak of naturally stored carbon dioxide gas under Lake Nyos in Cameroon took place in 1986 after a volcanic event, suddenly releasing as much as a cubic kilometre of CO2 onto the surface. In the leakage event, 1,700 people were suffocated to death. Livestocks being reared in the area were not spared either. This outcome could similarly happen with storage sites where carbon is artificially sequestered.

In fact, some opponents of manmade carbon storage have argued that investment in carbon sequestering technology have distracted the world community from finding more effective solutions to the problem of global warming.

Role of carbon storage in mitigating global warming

Nonetheless, today, there are several projects being developed around the world, such as in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Italy and Norway, to assess the efficiency and costs related to carbon capture and storage.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is also evaluating the possibilities and technologies for carbon capturing and storing.

If the problems with carbon storage could be properly resolved, this process could be used in support of other environmental projects (e.g. carbon emission reduction efforts) to help reduce global warming.

If carbon sequestering cannot save the climate, hopefully it can at least help to alleviate the situation (without bringing too much side effects), until a better solution can be found.

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