Carbon capture has been in the news a lot recently, but what exactly is it? Never fear, we're here to help explain this technical topic (using chocolate!).

Chocolate: the tastiest way to explain a complex process

We’re researching a broad portfolio of energy technologies to ensure we can keep the lights on, remain economically competitive and importantly, lower emissions. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is one key solution, and our researchers are on the case.

But what exactly is CCS? How does it work? What can it achieve? How can I sound super-smart when I’m with my friends and the topic comes up?  Never fear, we gentle science folk are here to help give you the scoop on this technical topic (including the best kind of analogy: a chocolate-based one).

How does it work?

CCS is a process used to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) gas emitted while producing power or making materials such as steel, cement or fertiliser. Broadly speaking, the gas is captured, transported, and then safely stored underground – permanently. By doing this, we can typically capture 90 per cent of the CO2 that would otherwise be emitted from power stations and industrial facilities.

Capture

Energy from fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas is released in the combustion (burning) and conversion process, which also results in the emission of CO2 as a by-product. It’s possible to capture the gas before it is emitted, and we’re working at Victoria’s AGL Loy Yang Power Station to make the capture process more efficient.

Transport 

CO2 is transported by pipeline, truck, rail or ship. In fact, there are already many pipelines around the world that safely transport large amounts of CO2 every day.

Uses

The gas also has many uses in the food and beverage industry (like creating the bubbles in your soft drink!) and it can assist with industrial processes such as the recovery of oil from underground. Of course, there’s only so much soft drink we can consume, so we also need to think about what to do with the remaining CO2.

Storing CO2 

Once CO2 has been captured and transported, it is injected deep underground, usually at depths of over 1 km. This process is sometimes called ‘geosequestration’. Generally, the rock needs three features to be suitable:

  1. Sufficient pore spaces in which CO2can be contained (porosity)
  2. Pathways connecting the pore spaces for the CO2to move through (permeability)
  3. A solid, sealing layer of rock on top of the porous, permeable layer, to stop the CO2moving outside the target area (seal or ‘cap rock’).

Here’s a delicious example of why these geological features are important.

A Tim Tam and an aerobar

The humble Tim Tam is a lot like a reservoir rock, while the Aero Bar, although seriously delicious, has no chance of holding your milk. Images: seriouseats.com and foodproductiondaily.com

Let’s consider a Tim Tam and an Aero Bar as two possible types of reservoir rock and milk as our CO2. Both chocolate bars have plenty of porous space in them, yet if you bite an end off each and try to use them as a straw through which to draw milk, the permeability of the Tim Tam will allow the milk to be pulled through the porous spaces into your mouth, but the Aero bar won’t.

This is because the Aero Bar, although porous, does not have any channels connecting the spaces and therefore the milk cannot move through the chocolate. The principle is the same for the reservoir rock needed to store CO2. The CO2 needs to be able to move through the rock and fill all the porous spaces.

Storage of CO2 has safely happened around the world for many years, and we’re finessing the finer points at our National Geosequestration Laboratory.

Serious potential

In addition to limiting the emissions expended to power our homes, CCS can play a vital role in decarbonising energy-intensive industries (such as steel production) which involve the continued use of fossil fuels. If fossil fuel is replaced by biomass, applying CCS will actually start to directly reduce the CO2 levels in the atmosphere, demonstrating its large potential for climate change mitigation.

While we’re working on making these technologies more efficient and cost effective, a number of major CCS projects are already operating or being built, capturing and storing many million tonnes of CO2 per year.

Achieving a low-emission economy for Australia

31 comments

  1. CSS works in gas and oil fields where carbon dioxide is released with the oil and gas as they are extracted. It is easy and necessary to separate the carbon dioxide from the fuel. Also by pumping the carbon dioxide back into the well oil and gas recovery is often enhanced. Separating carbon dioxide from the flue gas of a power station is a totally different story. About 15% of the flue gas is carbon dioxide the remainder is largely nitrogen(80%) and other acidic gases such as sulphur dioxide. Separation is a major problem usually involving removal of the more acidic gases then a reversible reaction with a liquid amine (e.g. triethyl amine). Once the carbon dioxide is recovered it needs to be transported to a suitable site before being injected into the ground. All of these processes add significant cost to the burning of coal to produce electricity.

  2. Really sad to see the CSIRO spruiking fossil fuels. And the chocolate analogy is laughable. Climate change is a little less amusing. The emasculation of the CSIRO – patently obvious in this newsletter (and article) is a tragedy.

  3. Hey guys you have already told us in a report that CCS is not only costly but it can mop up another 40% of energy from a power station, presumably energy from FF. So why the promo now? Are you being manipulated in promoting this massive legacy of trauma for future generations in the hope that it will all keep at extreme pressure CO2 in the ground for the next 1,000 years or so? Check out Boundary Dam unit 3 ‘success’ in Canada for more.

  4. I’d love to read a similarly easy to understand explanation of ‘clean coal’ and whether it is possible

  5. coal is stupid energy

    1. I’d find it hard to understand why we aren’t doing char for the soil, our soil is depleted of carbon and our air has too much. Sticking it miles underground doesn’t sound like the smartest way to do it, great that we can but we need it in our soil. That would deliver a double whammy and a gold star for us.

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