Carbon capture, usage and storage: Interview with professors Larry Baxter, Paitoon Tontiwachwuthikul and Berend Smit

A factory under a cloudy sky

Description automatically generated

Carbon capture, usage and storage is considered one of the key technologies in our fight against climate change, but most people are still unaware of it. Mrinal Abhinav and I had the opportunity to interview three leading experts on their research work and on the issues surrounding this technology: professor Larry Baxter from Brigham Young University, Professor Paitoon Tontiwachwuthikul from the University of Regina, and Professor Berend Smit from Berkeley and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Here is what they had to say.

The 2016 Paris Climate Agreement marked the start of nearly 200 countries’ efforts to curb their greenhouse gas emissions, in order to limit the current increase in global temperatures. One of the climate targets, as set out by the IPCC, is reaching “net-zero” emissions by 2050, meaning that 100% of emissions will have to be withdrawn from the atmosphere by then (read more about it here).  

Scientists believe that reaching net-zero by 2050 will probably not be achieved on time with renewables alone, explains professor Tontiwachwuthikul. Different technologies will be needed, and Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS) is considered one of them. 

What exactly is Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS)?

A close up of a logo

Description automatically generated
Schematic representation of CCUS

Carbon capture is an emissions reduction technology consisting of capturing CO2 from industrial pollution sources (or directly from the atmosphere). The CO2 is then compressed and stored underground (CCS) or, alternatively, it can be used for other purposes (CCU). Hence the term CCUS. 

The IEA estimates that CCUS facilities around the world currently capture 35 Million tonnes of CO2 per year, roughly the equivalent of Ireland’s 2017 emissions. But how does carbon capture work? In a nutshell: a solvent captures CO2 and then releases it upon heating to allow recycling, explains professor Tontiwachwuthikul. 

The experts on carbon capture

A person standing in front of a tree posing for the camera

Description automatically generated
Paitoon Tontiwachwuthikul

Professor Paitoon Tontiwachwuthikul

Professor Paitoon Tontiwachwuthikul, from the University of Regina, is the co-founder of the Clean Energy Technology Research Institute in Canada and does research on carbon capture solvent, design and operation. 

He has been working on carbon capture process optimization since moving to Canada in 1991. “At first it was just a job”, he explains. But then he became involved in the Weyburn-Midale project in Saskatchewan: the world’s greatest project to use CO2 for enhanced oil recovery and underground storage (read more about it here). “CO2 is a supercritical fluid and it can be used to move the oil”, he says. If it can be injected underground to facilitate oil recovery, why not leave it there for good?

Professor Larry Baxter

Our second expert is Professor Larry Baxter, from Brigham Young University. He came up with an innovative way of doing carbon capture while serving a sabbatical in Denmark. As of today, he has done £26M dollars’ worth of funded research on cryogenic carbon capture (CCC), a process that is half as expensive and about half as energy intensive as its traditional counterparts. 

What professor Baxter is developing is a built-on technology that can be added to any process that generates CO2, without the need to rebuild infrastructure. And it brings other environmental benefits, too: it captures other pollutants such as SOx and NOx and it recovers water from flue gas, significantly reducing water demands.

Professor Berend Smit

A person looking at the camera

Description automatically generated
Berend Smit

Our third expert is Professor Berend Smit, from the University of Berkeley and EPFL. He does research around finding new materials for carbon capture and storage since around 2008. Together with Jeff Reimer, Curt Oldenburg, and Ian Bourg, he authored the textbook “Introduction to Carbon Capture and Sequestration”. 

But how did he get into carbon capture? “When I moved from the University of Amsterdam to Berkeley” he says, “I wanted to do something new”. He got involved with the Energy Frontier Research Centre (EFRC). “They said: CO2 is not going to go away anytime soon. If you want to work on something, that may actually be a very good thing to do”, he adds. So he started writing a proposal for them. 

The issues:

Carbon capture is a pretty energy-intensive process, no matter how you capture it” says Professor Baxter. 

Energy and money are interchangeable. A process that uses more energy costs more”, explains Professor Tontiwachwuthikul. In carbon capture, he continues, the more steam you need to heat up the solvent, the more expensive it becomes to capture CO2“If carbon capture costs more than paying a carbon tax, then the easiest thing is to just pay the tax. But if you were to capture the CO2 and store it at a cheaper price, you would do that”.

Today, there are broadly 300 different solvents that can be used for carbon capture. “One solvent alone won’t cut it. We need to mix different technologies”, he adds. In the next 5 to 10 years, the goal of professor Tontiwachwuthikul and his team is to mix various technologies in order to reduce the energy consumption and bring down the cost to 30 dollars per tonne of CO2 captured. “This way, a lot more people would do this”.

“CO2 is a waste product. If you are not willing to pay for it, we will never solve the problem. Every waste product costs money to treat” says professor Smit. He believes that the we can overcome the public cost of carbon capture, but that unwillingness to pay for it is one of the main problems surrounding the implementation of this technology. “All the technologies are there. We can use them. We just need to start”. The other problem, according to Prof Smit, would be the need for global participation in carbon capture.

The road to net-zero

A view of a city next to a body of water

Description automatically generated
Renewable energy and CCUS: is this what the future will look like?

“There are very few reasons not to like solar energy, but the problem with it is that you need to store it, and you make it significantly more expensive”, explains Professor Smit. On the other hand, according to Professor Baxter, carbon capture “has the potential to solve the energy storage issues associated with intermittent renewables”.

Professor Tontiwachwuthikul explains that moving to a low-carbon economy is going to take us a long time. “Today, gasoline and jet fuels are still the preferred alternatives to power big trucks and cargo ships”. To repress this, he says, will be very difficult. “We need to be practical”, he adds, “carbon capture can be a breaching”.

Furthermore, we can find innovative ways to utilize the captured CO2. Professor Tontiwachwuthikul says we can store carbon dioxide permanently in concrete at a reasonable cost. This also increases the material’s strength (read more about it here). A win-win situation!

“We are too addicted to fossil fuels and they are not going to disappear anytime soon”

These are the words of Professor Smit when he explains to us that carbon capture is not 100% sustainable, but it is still better than keeping up with business as usual and doing nothing. In fact, he says, what people may not realise is that CO2 does not disappear from the atmosphere once you stop emissions. Instead, it stays there for thousands of years, with the potential to affect future generations for centuries to come. For this reason, he says, it is unacceptable to say “we don’t care”. “The CO2 needs to go down, that’s the most important thing”.

Carbon capture is the way forward

According to all three experts, a mix of renewables and negative emission technologies such as carbon capture, usage and storage could be a balanced way forward to reach net-zero by 2050. “Carbon capture is an essential part of the solution, not just an option”, says professor Baxter, “it is not the only one or the most complete, but it is one of the most important ones”. 

In order to recognize the beneficial impact that they are having on the environment through their work, we selected professors Larry Baxter, Paitoon Tontiwachwuthikul and Berend Smit to be part of our Fairforce List “Top Researchers in Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage Technologies”.