An unintended problem of natural gas abundance will be creating new uses for it, and there are several emerging technologies that appear to hold more achievable uses for carbon than simply throwing it away as waste product or burying it.
From the very first at No Hot Air I have been truly deeply skeptical of Carbon Capture and Storage. But on the other hand, there are a lot of otherwise sane geologists I meet who promote it. It seems very problematic to capture CO2 in the first place and storage is surely uninsurable. The only actual application in the small number of demonstration projects currently operating, is to use CO2 in Enhanced Oil Recovery. Taking carbon out of coal is good, but the carbon and financial, economics of then using it to then produce more fossil fuels strikes me as the problematic meeting the pointless. The other alternative is to store it. If we can’t get the public to accept natural gas storage, how are we to convince them about CO2 storage, which could engender even more serious issues than nuclear waste. Firstly, the quantities would have to be vast to make any difference, and it basically avoids the problem today and asks future generations to shoulder the burden. What would happen if millennia in the future some once in a millennia seismic event causes a storage site to belch hundreds of years of CO2 into the atmosphere for only one example?
Then we have the economics of coal CCS. Even after the two big ifs of making it work at scale and storing it somewhere are solved,we bump into the third of how much would it cost. Spending a lot of money to effectively, if optimistically, cut 80% of the CO2 from coal seems especially pointless when using natural gas existing technology in the first place cuts 60% if a natural gas plant is used effectively. If economics didn't work at 80% cuts, they seem entirely pointless for a net 20% gain.
I’m also wary of the idea that we will still need big coal, nuclear, or even gas plants, when using the energy transfer network of natural gas pipelines makes widely distributed power achievable without linking ourselves together with expensive new smart grid infrastructure. The gas pipeline network is a far more efficient use of existing grids than building new electricity. CCS would be unlikely economic, or do anything useful with carbon, at small scale.
A solution is thus not carbon storage but carbon conversion or carbon recycling. This is all about finding a use for what we throw away into the air today. That's is the point summed up at the end of a recent piece at Breaking Energy by Ed Dodge
Convert pollution from a liability into an asset by putting a price on carbon and let the market handle it. Treating CO2 as toxic waste ensures that it ends up as toxic waste, complete with a huge bill and long-term liabilities. But if we can treat CO2 as a misallocated asset and develop a market for it then we can solve the problem. We can convert CO2 into a family of useful products, create new industries and hopefully solve climate change in one fell swoop.
Several companies already are in various stages of converting waste CO2 into chemicals. Skyonic mineralises CO2 emissions from a concrete plant to produce baking soda and hydrochloric acid. Calera is all about converting useless carbon into useful chemicals and Carbon Recycling International does what it says on the box, converting CO2 into methanol in Iceland.
The beauty not only is about re-using carbon, but using it to replace carbon used via natural gas and naphtha in today’s chemical industry. This schematic from the US Department of Energy is ironically on a sub site of the CCS portal. It shows that using first gen CCS in EOR (on the left) is similar in principle to it’s opposite on the right hand side which is all about solving the storage problem by reusing CO2 in chemical industries where it also replaces CO2 use in them. We also see other niche uses in beverages, fire extinguishers and my favourite, food production. I used to have clients in the gas marketing days that were heavily into using greenhouse gases - in greenhouses. A rudimentary, if temporary, form of carbon storage is in tomatoes.
But there’s something else I think that will come along and it may be even better. Carbon Fiber integrating with nanotechnology is becoming more common in new applications in fields as diverse as batteries, wiring, magnets and computer memory. There’s a long story of them in aircraft engines, tennis rackets and of course wind turbine blades. Carbon fibre composites is constantly evolving in aircraft design which will see new planes radically lighter, and thus more fuel efficient. Replacing aluminium in aircraft will then start to go down the metal chain towards cars and even conventional steel. This is from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a place with impeccable green credentials who don’t perhaps quite get what they were proposing in 2011:
Thus one key to replacing steel is to lower it’s cost. The journey is starting with shale gas as we see from recent news from Japan’s chemical giant Toray:
Japanese chemical maker Toray is planning to build a new carbon fibre and advanced materials production site in South Carolina, US. The company will invest ¥100 billion (£585 million) over the next seven years to take advantage of cheap feedstocks and energy from the US shale gas boom.
The new integrated plant will produce both raw carbon fibre products and fibre-reinforced resin composite materials for the aerospace and energy-related industries.
Global steel production is dependent on coal – around 70% of total global steel production relies directly on inputs of coal. Around 1 billion tonnes of coal are used in global steel production, which is around 14% of total coal consumption worldwide.
Converting carbon into carbon composites is not only inherently more efficient, but replacing carbon inputs into steel will be even more valuable. Then, at the finished product stage, good news increases exponentially. Lighter planes and cars use less oil - and less carbon.
Shale gas won’t change everything. As I told National Grid’s Future of Energy in 2010 It’s much more important than that. Although back then, almost every member of the audience thought I was the mad scientist.