Scotland commits to CCS

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2018

Khai Trung Le looks at Scotland’s continued commitment to carbon capture and storage, as more research emerges from the country that has pinned hopes of renewed value in the North Sea on the capturing technology.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a significant tent pole, one of six priorities, in the Scottish Government’s first Energy Strategy. It has the potential to uphold value in the North Sea, aid Scotland’s oil and gas workforce and, of course, support the UK’s decarbonisation efforts. Back in 2016, Andrew Purvis, EMEA General Manager of the Global CCS Institute, told Materials World that, despite the second cancellation of the UK’s £1bln CCS competition in December 2015, the country was still committed to pioneering CCS research (Materials World, September 2016). Opinion was divided – while the National Audit Office lambasted the UK Government for setting back the rollout of CCS technology by at least a decade, stating there may be ‘no viable way to achieve deep emissions reductions from the industrial sector in the near future’, Purvis was enthused by the at-the-time forthcoming Oxburgh Report, which would outline the necessary steps to CCS-supporting infrastructure.

While Purvis’ statement may be accurate, almost all of the UK’s CCS efforts originate in Scotland, where CCS has meant more than being a means of storing carbon. It was a point of conflict in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, led to the creation of the world’s first Professor of CCS at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and may provide a new lease of life for the ailing North Sea.

Scotland the brave

Stuart Haszeldine OBE, aforementioned Professor of CCS and Director of Scottish Carbon Capture and Storage (SCCS), announced that, with technology sufficiently developed to allow CO2 pumping through the St Fergus gas processing terminal into rock formations in the North Sea through disused pipelines, Scotland was ready to create Europe’s first large-scale CCS scheme.

This followed progress made throughout 2017 by Pale Blue Dot Energy, a climate change consultancy, with the company’s latest initiative, Project Acorn, aiming to demonstrate the feasibility of CCS projects in the UK with a permanent underwater storage reservoir handling CO2 from the St Fergus gas processing terminal. In addition, it will complete a business case and economic model using existing infrastructure as a low-cost entry point.

Acorn secured funding from the EU’s Accelerating CCS Technologies initiative, and has begun feasibility studies supported by the universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Liverpool and Heriot-Watt University, UK, Bellona University, Norway, and Radboud University, the Netherlands.

Steve Murphy, Project Manager of Pale Blue Dot Energy, described the project as a commissioning phase but hopes to see it expand to include emissions from central Scotland, from future hydrogen produced at St Fergus and the potential import of CO2 to Peterhead harbour. Murphy explained, ‘Acorn is an exciting step forward for CCS in the UK, especially as [we have had] several false starts in recent years. We want to encourage the replication of the Acorn project worldwide, and one of our key objectives is to engage with low-carbon stakeholders in Europe and further afield to disseminate lessons learned and tools created.’

Haszeldine claimed that around 2 million tonnes of CO2 could be injected annually into the North Sea formations, but would require £200m of funding from the UK Government. However, he expressed concern following the announcement of the Industrial Strategy in December 2017, stating it could ‘kick the can further down the road […] we risk losing the next big industry of the North Sea. If we wait, the Norwegians will beat us to it and Europe will be paying them to store its CO2.’

Captain chaos

Scotland’s commitment to CCS is unsurprising, given the status of Peterhead as a frontrunner in the 2015 £1bln CCS competition and its desire for enhanced use of the North Sea, which has seen a decline in annual oil and gas production from three million barrels a year in 1999 to one million in 2016.

The North Sea’s potential as a CCS site is indisputable, with an almost ready-made infrastructure led by a country steeped in decades of oil and gas production experience. With gas reserves declining, the existing pipelines could be adapted into transporting CO2 – in the document, Building a CO2 storage hub in the Central North Sea, SCCS claims over 70% of Scotland’s CO2 emitters lie within 6-12 miles of the Feeder 10 pipeline, and can easily be linked to low cost decarbonising industries. The North Sea also enjoys significant political support, with stakeholders across financial and regulatory organisations active in ensuring the UK continues to commit to the economic livelihood of the North Sea.

Despite the country’s suitability, it has not all been plain sailing. In late 2017, researchers from Heriot-Watt University claimed the Captain Sandstone rock formation, which lies half a mile beneath the seabed and extends 30 miles into the North Sea and is one of the most promising sites for storage, included potential leakage points that may bleed CO2 back into the atmosphere. Captain Sandstone was believed to be capable of storing anything between 15-100 years of CO2 emissions from Scottish power generation.

However, Professor John Underhill, Chair of Exploration Geoscience at Heriot-Watt, said the tectonic plate on which the British Isles sit has tilted and cracked against the European continent. He said, ‘The whole of Britain has risen towards the west and dips towards the east. As a result, Captain Sandstone and other rock formations rise up to the seabed and are potential leakage points.’

Regardless, Underhill points towards the potential of rock formations under the North Sea that have a proven capacity to hold CO2 over geologic time scales. He added, ‘What was an exploration failure for the oil and gas industry becomes a carbon storage opportunity for the future.’

Change me, Escherichia

Scotland hasn’t laid all eggs in one sea, and is exploring alternative means of CO2 storage, including the common bacteria, E. coli. Detailed in the paper, Efficient Hydrogen-Dependent Carbon Dioxide Reduction by Escherichia coli, published in Current Biology, researchers from the University of Dundee, UK, looked into living organisms to perform the hydrogenisation of CO2, in particular how E. coli broke down sugars into CO2 and hydrogen.

Frank Sargent, Professor of Bacterial Physiology at Dundee, told the BBC, ‘We had this brainwave, maybe we could get the process to run in reverse. If we gave the E. coli CO2 and hydrogen, then it could convert it into a different product.’ The E. coli converts it into liquid formic acid, which can be used as a preservative and antibacterial agent in livestock feed, the production of rubber and de-icers for airport runways among others, as well as being an easier means of storing and transporting CO2.

Sargent continued, ‘The E. coli solution isn’t only attractive as a carbon capture technology. It converts it into a liquid that is stable and comparatively easily stored. This could be an important breakthrough in biotechnology. It should be possible to optimise the system further and finally develop a “microbial factory” that could be used to mop up CO2 from different industries.’

Much of Scotland’s CCS success is predicated on wider UK Government support, which has recently been shaky at best. Haszeldine said, ‘If Westminster is serious about being a UK Government, then it needs to act now and strengthen its Clean Growth Strategy, which supports CCS but lacks urgency or financial commitment. CCS is the best way of delivering low cost, low carbon heat to citizens with minimal disruption.’