Understanding CCUS: How It Works & Why It Matters

Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) is a critical technological method aimed at mitigating the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on our planet.

by Fabian Weber | 3. August, 2023

Understanding CCUS: How It Works & Why It Matters

1. What is Carbon Capture Utilisation & Storage (CCUS? 

Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) is a critical technological method  aimed at mitigating the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on our planet. It is a  three-fold process that involves the capture of carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from  various sources such as power plants and industrial processes, the utilisation of this  captured carbon for various purposes such as the production of chemicals, fuels, and building materials or alternatively the permanent storage of the CO₂ deep  underground in geological formations. This process helps prevent large quantities of  CO₂ from being released into the atmosphere, thereby playing a significant role in  addressing climate change. 

2. History of Carbon Capture Utilisation & Storage (CCUS)? 

The history of Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) can be traced back to  the mid-20th century, with initial studies focused on the potential for capturing CO₂  emissions from fossil fuel sources. However, it was not until the late 1970s and early  1980s that the first large-scale CCUS projects began to take shape. The most  prominent among these was the Sleipner field project in Norway, which started in  1996 and is operated by Equinor. Equinor has been injecting CO₂ into the Utsira  formation in the North Sea, making it the first commercial-scale CCUS project.  Around the same time, another significant project was the Weyburn-Midale field in  Canada, which used captured CO₂ for enhanced oil recovery, illustrating the  'utilization' aspect of CCUS. These pioneering projects set the groundwork for the  development and implementation of CCUS technologies around the globe. In the years following the initial projects, the scale and reach of CCUS technologies  have expanded significantly. In the early 2000s, several countries including the  United States, Canada, and Australia launched ambitious CCUS programs. The  United States, in particular, made significant advancements with the implementation  of the Clean Coal Power Initiative and later the FutureGen project. However,  FutureGen was ultimately cancelled due to cost overruns and technical challenges.

In the meantime, projects like In Salah Gas in Algeria and Gorgon in Australia  demonstrated the feasibility of large-scale geological storage of CO₂. 

The most  recent major development in the CCUS landscape is the large-scale commercial use  of captured CO₂ for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) in the United States. This has  been driven by a combination of technological advancements and economic  incentives, including tax credits for CO₂-EOR operations. Today, the deployment of CCUS technologies is more crucial than ever given the  urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Governments and industry around the world are increasingly recognizing the importance of CCUS in achieving net-zero  emission targets. This recognition is reflected in the growing number of policies  supporting CCUS and the increasing investment in CCUS research and  development. As a result, we are witnessing a new wave of innovation and  deployment of CCUS technologies across a range of sectors and regions. 

Rising number of CCUS projects

In the last few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of  operational CCUS projects worldwide. These projects are highly diverse, spanning  industries from power generation to cement production, and widely distributed  geographically, from North America to Asia. One such noteworthy project is the Petra Nova facility in Texas, which is the world's  largest post-combustion carbon capture system installed on a coal-fired power plant.  Meanwhile, in Europe, the Northern Lights project in Norway represents a major  advancement in the transport and storage sector. This project is designed to store  CO₂ captured from industrial facilities across Europe in a reservoir beneath the North Sea. In addition to these operational projects, several new CCUS facilities are in the  pipeline. For example, the Net Zero Teesside and Zero Carbon Humber projects in  the UK aim to create the world's first zero-carbon industrial clusters. Although the growth in CCUS deployment is encouraging, much more needs to be  done to meet global emission reduction goals. To accelerate the pace of CCUS  deployment further, governments and industry must continue to support research and investment into these technologies and create an enabling policy framework for their  uptake. This will ensure that CCUS remains a key component of the global effort to  reduce emissions 

3. How Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) works.

Carbon capture is the cornerstone of the CCUS process and it relies on innovative  engineering and advanced chemistry. The process begins at power plants and  industries that release carbon dioxide (CO₂) as a part of their operations. In these facilities, a solvent or membrane is employed to absorb the CO₂ from the exhaust  gases, a process known as flue gas desulfurization. This "scrubbing" action  separates the carbon dioxide from the other gases. The solvent or membrane  containing CO₂ is then subjected to heat. This heating process results in the release  of concentrated CO₂ from the solvent. The captured CO₂ is then ready for the next  stage of the process – transportation to a storage site or a place where it can be  utilized. While the capture process may seem straightforward, it involves rigorous  optimization to maximize efficiency, minimize energy loss, and ensure a safe working environment. The continuous advancements in technology are making this process  more efficient and cost-effective, paving the way for a sustainable future. 

Utilisation of captured carbon 

After carbon capture, the next step is the utilisation of the captured carbon dioxide,  named Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU). Presently, the most widespread  application of captured CO₂ still is Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), where it is injected into oil reservoirs to optimize oil production. Additionally, CO₂ is used in the food and beverage industry, for instance, in the carbonation of drinks and the preservation of  packaged food. It's also employed in the medical field for certain anesthesia  procedures, and in the agriculture sector for accelerated plant growth in  greenhouses. Also, a notable form of CO₂ application is the creation of dry ice. Dry  ice, or solid CO₂, is primarily used for cooling purposes during shipping, especially  for goods that need to be kept frozen or cold, such as pharmaceuticals and food. It's  also applied in the cleaning industry, where it's used for blasting or cleaning surfaces. Besides the existing application of CO₂ many research and development efforts are  paving the way for different new innovative uses of captured CO₂. One promising  avenue is the conversion of CO₂ into valuable products such as plastics, concrete,  and even fuels, which could significantly reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Another  exciting area of research is using CO₂ to produce algae-based biofuels. Scientists  are also exploring the potential of CO₂-based fertilizers to promote plant growth.  These future utilisation cases not only present opportunities for greenhouse gas  reduction but also stimulate economic growth by creating new industries around  captured carbon. The full potential of CO₂ utilisation is yet to be unlocked, propelling  us towards a more sustainable and carbon-neutral future. 

Storage of unused carbon

Storing captured carbon dioxide (CO₂), that can't be used for commercial reasons, is  a crucial aspect of our fight against climate change. This process, known as Carbon  Capture and Storage (CCS), takes captured CO₂ emissions and stores it safely  underground, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere. To do so, the captured CO₂ is compressed and transported via pipelines, by ship or  by truck to the storage site where it is injected deep underground into geological  formations, typically depleted oil and gas fields or deep saline aquifer formations.  These natural geological barriers ensure that the CO₂ remains securely trapped. Storing CO₂ in this manner not only helps in reducing our carbon footprint but also  paves the way for a more sustainable future. It's a practical solution that, combined  with transitioning to renewable energy sources, can contribute significantly towards  mitigating the detrimental effects of climate change. 

4. Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) and the Net-Zero Target.

Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) plays a pivotal role in achieving net- zero carbon emissions, especially when we consider the world's current energy  demands. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), CCUS could  contribute to reducing global CO₂ emissions by nearly 20% (around 37 GtCO₂ per  year until 2050) while cutting the cost of tackling climate change by approximately  70%. Furthermore, the Global CCS Institute states that CCUS, along with other low  carbon technologies, can help reduce CO₂ emissions in industrial sectors by up to  90% by 2050. Considering these figures, it is clear that CCUS is an essential tool in  our arsenal to reach net-zero targets and combat climate change. However, it's important to recognize that CCUS is just one piece of the larger net- zero puzzle. Achieving net-zero will require a multi-faceted approach that also  includes transitioning to renewable sources of energy like wind, solar, and hydro,  promoting energy efficiency and conservation, and adopting sustainable practices in  agriculture, forestry, and other land use. This comprehensive strategy will ensure we  keep global temperatures from rising above the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius  threshold, safeguarding our planet for future generations. Challenges in using CCUS for net-zero target While the potential of CCUS is undeniable, its implementation is not without  challenges. Currently, one of the foremost obstacles is the high cost associated with  high capacity carbon capture technologies. Combined with the lack of comprehensive legal and regulatory CO₂ taxes (or rewarding systems) it's still unattactive for many  industries from a return-on-investment (ROI) perspective, especially for developing  countries that are major contributors to global CO₂ emissions. Additionally, public  acceptance of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is an issue, given concerns over  potential leaks and associated environmental risks. Despite these hurdles, there are positive developments on the horizon that could  accelerate the implementation of CCUS. Technological advancements like high  efficient solvents or new membrane solutions are reducing the costs associated with  carbon capture processes. Governments worldwide are recognizing the necessity of  CCUS in achieving their climate goals and are starting to establish supportive  policies combindes with increased CO₂ taxes. For instance, the United States' 45Q  tax credit for carbon capture, utilization, and storage is a step in the right direction.  Furthermore, international collaboration, such as the launch of the "Global CCUS  Initiative" by the Clean Energy Ministerial, indicates increased global commitment to  this vital technology. 

5. Conclusion

In conclusion, Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) is a critical  technology for our decarbonization journey, despite the challenges it currently faces  such as high costs, regulatory complexities, and public acceptance issues. However,  the landscape is changing positively, with advancements in technology reducing  costs, supportive government policies like the US's 45Q tax credit or the EU's carbon  penalty taxes coming into play. In this context, it is essential for companies known for their CO₂ footprint to closely monitor CCUS trends and develop strategies to take  advantage of its potential. Furthermore, companies should support the active  participation in global initiatives like the Clean Energy Ministerial's "Global CCUS  Initiative"  Looking forward, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that by 2050, CCUS- strategies could provide 20% of the cumulative emissions reductions needed to limit  global warming to below 2°C. This implies a twenty-fold increase in CCUS  deployment compared to today's levels, highlighting the transformative potential of  this technology. As such, continued innovation, policy support, and international  collaboration are crucial to fully harness the benefits of CCUS and reach our climate  goals. 

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