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September 2, 2016 31 mins

Carbon capture sequestration is all about removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Can we convert the greenhouse gas into solid rock?

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Brought to you by Toyota. Let's go places. Welcome to
Forward Thinking. Hey there, and welcome to Forward Thinking, the
podcast that looks at the future and says we will
we will rock you. I'm Jonathan Strick and I'm Joe McCormick.

You always astound me. You take us to new depths
of shame and misery. There's so many songs that have
rock or stone in them, and that pertains to what
we are going to talk about today, but I decided
to choose the most obvious one. So obviously we're talking

about the future of stone tools. Yeah, I think they're
really going to make a comeback. Let me tell you
is where it's at. Guys, if you're not on the
bronze train, you are really missing out. Actually very fashionable
these days. Well, why are we going to be talking
about box today? So we wanted to look into a

strategy for dealing with carbon dioxide emissions. Now, as I'm
sure our listeners are aware, carbon dioxide is a one
of several greenhouse gases, right is It's the primary one
that is created by the activity of that we humans
tend to undertake throughout the world. Uh, And so there's

been a lot of discussion about reducing carbon dioxide emissions,
but not just not just that, how can we deal
with the carbon dioxide emissions we're currently generating? Is there
anything we could do to offset that in any way?
And one of the possible ways we could do that
is by mineralizing carbon dioxides. So we wanted to kind

of take a look at that. What does that entail,
why is it important in the first place, and what
are the possibilities for the future. So first we should
kind of just cover the ground about carbon dioxide, it's
role as a greenhouse gas, What does that actually mean?
How does that affect us? Yeah, because when we say
that it's the primary greenhouse gas according to the Environmental

Protection Agency, it accounts for of the greenhouse gases in
our in or the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
And it's not necessarily the most potent greenhouse gas, but
it's the most important important because it's the most abundant. Right.
So you can look at different greenhouse gases and you'll
see that different ones may absorb, first of all, greenhouse gas,

it creates the greenhouse effect, right, this idea of retaining
heat close to the Earth, which is a natural part
of what happens in our atmosphere, and if we didn't
have it, we would not be doing so well. Right.
We need we need some of that greenhouse effect in
order to retain heat and make the planet habitable and
let plants do stuff, you know, things like that. Yeah,

so it's not like we don't want any greenhouse gas,
but we have too much of it exactly. So the
Industrial revolution we have been accidentally geoengineering our planet by
changing the balance of dispersed gases in the atmosphere, increasing
the ratio of these carbon based gases that increase the
greenhouse effect, trapping more heat, warming the surface of the planet,

melting ice, changing ecosystems, killing species, changing weather patterns. It's
obvious at this point you know why this matters, right,
And it's definitely an industrial issue. It's it's it's not
happening because of the pasta we're eating. Um, it's it's
it's it's because of like pre industrial society. Of course,
they weren't taking detailed molecular readings on the atmosphere at

that point. But but researchers think that that we've seen
CEO two levels increased by what since pre industrial times. Yeah,
we're talking about thirty billion tons of carbon dioxide released
from human activities every year. Yeah. And and there are
ways of knowing what the carbon dooc side levels in
the atmosphere were like before industrial times. For example, you

can look at ancient ice cores or sediment cores. They
are all kinds of ways of looking for clues about
what the atmosphere was like in the past. Right, And
and carbon dioxide has a cycle where it can be
removed from the atmosphere. But we're seeing a real problem
and that not only are we dumping more carbon dioxide

into the atmosphere, we're removing a lot of the carbon
dioxide sinks where we would normally see some of that
CEO to get reabsorbed into the cycle where it's not
it's no longer in the atmosphere, all right. When you've
got a lot of trees around, they're pulling carbon dioxide
out of the air and turning it into more tree.
But when you have people cutting down a whole lot

of forests in order to do very important things to
be fair, uh, you just have less of that carbon
capture going on. That an amazing thing to think about.
You walk through a forest and you think where did
the mass of these trees come from? Mostly it came
from the air, air, and water. So that Yeah, the
primary atoms that are making up the cells of these

trees are carbon, and the carbon came from carbon dioxide
that was in the atmosphere. It's it's a phenomenal thing
to think about. And beyond that, you know there's carbon
trapped in other ways too. I mean, you know you
hear about like coal burning coal and that releases carbon dioxide.
Well before that, the carbon dioxide was part of the coal.

It was captured, it was it was in a form
that was not going to leak out and escape into
the atmosphere on its own. Oh so I wonder if
we could do something about our problem with an excess
of atmospheric carbon dioxide by just making that into more coal. Yeah,
you mean, like kind of reversing the process. Can't we
get all that stuff and make some rocks, like smush

it together really hard, mineralizing it essentially? The basic technical
about it, I guess mineralizing share The basic answer to
your question is we can. We can kind of do
that thing. It's not so much as making coal as
it is finding a method to convert CEO two from
the gas form into a mineral form. But it's actually

I hesitate to use the word easy. It's it's simple
in the fact that it does not require, uh, a
huge number of steps, right, not a processing It's simple
in theory and in practice it's hard, sure and well
and mostly just expensive to get started. Um. But we'd
like to talk to you guys today specifically about this

one research project that's been going on in Iceland that
recently published some really interesting results that they've had. And
the story came in from a listener of the Now
podcast by the name of Patrick. Thank you Patrick, UM
And yeah, yeah, so it's it's about this team of
icelandic American and French researchers who are working together in

Iceland because Iceland happens to have an area conditions that
are just so extremely well suited to their work. Yeah.
It turns out that this uh, it's kind of like
a pilot project, and that pilot project is it's located
in pretty much the perfect spot to test out this
particular approach. UH. And we'll get into more details and

explain why it's so ideal. But let's talk a little
bit about this team. Uh, well, we should mention the
paper itself. Yes, the name of the so the paper
was published in Science in June right around but yeah,
it was called rapid Carbon Mineralization for Permanent Disposal of
anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. And I'm guessing that the operative

word in the title there is rapid because as you said,
we can. We can turn c O two into minerals.
We have the power to do that. But I'm guessing
it's not easy and it's not quick. Well, I mean it,
it happens naturally over time. But by over time we're
talking like spans of thousands of years. Now. On a
geological scale, that's nothing. Yeah, that's fine, but for we humans,

that's a darn long time. We want things to be changed. Now. Yeah,
it's it's tough to say, like, hey, the improvements we're
gonna make, we're not going to see any results from that.
But people or people like things in a thousand years
will totally enjoy our effort. The crab monsters that take
over this planet will benefit greatly from our efforts. And

we we can't even wait to to make an entire
box of macaroni and cheese we need easy MAC what
is the MAC version of carbonization? So the expert who
is sort of the the head of this, or at
least the person who has often been associated with it,
is your mater, and mater has been seen like his

work has seen not just here in this particular instance,
this Iceland project, there's also a project in the United
States I'll talk about a little bit later that he
consulted on. So he's definitely at the forefront of this
this sort of research and this methodology. And so his
whole um hypothesis was that we could use a particular

approach to speed up the natural cycle of carbon dioxide.
You could make it turn into a mineral much more
quickly using a specific methodology. Now, what he was looking
at was a type of carbon capture and storage or
carbon capture and sequestration, that's CCS. You'll see that term

pretty frequently. Sequestration. Isn't that such a euphemistic sounding word.
It's like when you you send somebody to prison, you're
just sequestering them. Well, you know, I it's funny because
when I think of the word, the first thing that
pops in my mind, even though it's not necessarily ever
used in that context is how do we deal with
nuclear waste? Right? The idea of of not just capturing it,

but putting it away where it cannot harm people. Uh.
In this case, we're talking about trying to capture carbon
dioxide and locking it in a form where it's not
going to leak back out into the atmosphere. That that
was a chief concern in all of these different approaches
that people have been trying with ccs. How can you
capture carbon dioxide and converted into a form that is

uh economically viable In other words, it's not gonna cost
so much to do it that no one is ever
going to put forth the money to actually go forward
with a project. How can it be easy and safe
enough so that you don't have to worry about putting
anyone in danger as a result of this um And
how can it be effective so that you're not just

having c O two leak right back into the atmosphere
despite your efforts. Even if that's a small percentage, it's
still a problem. Right If you say, well, this approach
is only six effective because the CEO two goes back
in the atmosphere, then you're you're looking at not good
return exactly exactly this this benefit of are we actually
better off using this approach than we would be if

we tried something else, like just reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
So the approach they used specifically in this case was
dissolving carbon dioxide into water, So you get busy water
essentially carbonated water essentially, and then injecting that carbonated water
into basaltic rock basaltic rock. You say, yeah, well, here,

here's the thing. Basaltic rock is porous, Okay, pockets, It's
got a little pockets in it, so you can inject
those pockets with this, uh, this carbon dioxide water solution,
and then you end up getting a chemical reaction. Basalt
also has stuff like calcium and magnesium in it, so
you get this CEO two solution reacting with that, and

eventually that mineralizes into what is essentially limestone. And limestone
is very stable. You don't have to worry about that
breaking down and releasing carbon dioxide right back into the
atmosphere um and it locks it away. You can. As
soon as that mineralizes, you're good to go. The question
is how long will it take for the CEO too

to actually undergo this process? Now? There have been people
who before this project was underway, we're guessing that that
would be a matter of decades that you would be
pumping water into the basalt, and maybe twenty years you
might see a good return, like a decent percentage of
that would be mineralized. But that turns out to be

way too pessimistic, because according to Mater and his work
over in Iceland, they saw that more than of the
c O two they had pumped into the basalt as
a pilot project had mineralized in just two years. Yeah,
like like so much of it. It is a remarkable return,

something that suggests that this approach could be an incredible
um option for certain situations. And we'll get into why that's.
You know, I have to put that qualifiers. It's not
it's not perfect, but but it is still an exciting development,
especially because of the scale of it. It's not like

they took like like three said, and tried to do
something like it and blow into a paper bag and shove.
That's a little bit more more involved in light the
bag on fire and put it on your doors and
knock on your door and run away. And it wasn't
was knock knock, it's climate change, the classic scientific prank. Um,

No that it was. It was not that case. So
I mentioned earlier that this particular project was kind of
an ideal realization of this approach, and here's what I
mean by that. First, the project is co located with
a geothermal energy plant in Iceland that is on top
of basaltic rock. Right, so you've already got the stuff

you need right there. Iceland is essentially made of basaltic rock, yeah,
which is not the norm for most areas. And well
that's part of the reason why we put those qualifiers
on this approach, but they had a plenty of basalt
to work with. Is a geothermal plant that also generates
carbon dioxide. Not all geothermal plants do, but this one does,

and it's at the tune of forty thousand tons of
the stuff every year, which is, you know, still low
compared to other types of power plants. Oh yeah, absolutely,
Like if you're looking at a cold power plant, you're
talking about three point five million tons of carbon dioxide
per year. But but anything that you can reduce is great, yes,
And so the important part is that they were they

had a plant where they could capture the carbon dioxide
emissions right from the generation, right, so they're capturing it
at the source from the normal plant, the thermal plant
also to go out with the net. Yeah. Yeah, a
couple of ziploc bags and a lot of heart and
moxi no um. So they had the CEO two source
right there. But also because it's a geo thermal plant,

in order for them to access the the heat that
is at the heart of the production of electricity, the
plant had to drill bore holes down into the basalt. Well,
if you're going to inject c O two into basalt,
you need to drill bore holes down into the rock
itself so you can pump the water down. So they

were already bought bar holes. No, no need to spend
money on all that drilling, right. Yeah. It's it's like, well,
this is this is perfect because we would have had
to do this anyway, but they already exist, so we
don't have to do it ourselves. So they had the
source of the CEO two, they had the basaltic rock,
they had the holes they needed. All they really had
to do at that point. And I again, when I

say all they really had to do, this is still
a lot of work, but it's much less than what
they would have had to do if none of these
other things existed. No, I think it was easy. Yeah,
they had to dissolve the c O two into water.
You know, you should really be ashamed of themselves over
an Icelander. Who knows what else they're doing, right, I mean,
it's just a world of mystery to me. I know

nothing about the place. Uh, you just did, didn't you, Joe?
What do people do besides pump c O two into
the rocks over in Iceland, gawk and how beautiful the
world is, and and eat the best hot dogs on earth?
They have these hot dogs at every gas station in
Iceland called pilser that are they're the same everywhere you go,

not exactly the same, but like the recipes pretty much
the same, and they're they're cheap and they're awesome. Well,
now we know while they're not making hot dogs and
consuming them, they're apparently pumping the c O two into
the basaltic rock. Their first approach was to try and
do this with about two fifty tons of c O two,

and that is from two thousand twelve to two thirteen.
In two thousand fifteen, once they were able to see
that this program did appear to be working. They stepped
it up to five thousand tons of carbon dioxide. So uh,
that's still obviously a deficit to the amount that's being
generated just by this one geo thermal plant. They hope
to hit ten thousand tons by the end of this year.

Still a deficit because we were talking about forty tho
tons generated each year. But the progress is very promising,
and the fact that that CEO two isn't going anywhere
is a great story. Oh yeah, yeah, it's still and
again like offsetting any of this is a win. Yes,
but now we get into the drawbacks. Here's the reason

why we put a lot of qualifications on this. Now,
this is not to take anything away from this project.
I I love to say they should be ashamed. I am.
I'm kidding very much. No, this is really this is
really good science, limited by geography and and and and six.
But still, come on, guys, you could have stepped it up. No, no,

this this The problem is that this approach, even as
effective as it is, is very tricky to do in
most places. Right, Iceland was again the perfect place because
you had that basaltic rock right there. The real issue
is that basaltic rock is it's plentiful. It's just not
plentiful any place where there happens to be, you know,

dry ground. Yeah, most of it is under the sea floor. Yes,
So in order for you to access the basalt, you
would have to drill down into the sea floor, which
obviously creates other hurdles, other engineering challenges, and increases the
cost of that solution, right. Uh. Furthermore, it requires a

whole lot of water to to carry out the process. Yeah.
So for every ton of c O two, they uh,
they estimate that it takes twenty five tons of water. Now,
we've done other episodes of about water, Like we did
one called Water Water Everywhere, and we did another one
called the Circle of H two O. Both of those

published in two thousand thirteen. And you remember, if you
listen to those episodes, we talked about how water is
a very precious resource. Fresh water is a very precious resource,
fresh clean water, I mean. And the issue, of course
it's complicated, right. The water is not leaving earth, it's
just not it's just not necessarily in the places where
people need it. Yeah, yeah, and and that can that

can become super problematic Also, the ratio of fresh water
to seawater to saltwater um is not quite what it
would be nice for us. It's great, great for the fish, Yeah,
not so much for us necessarily. Yeah, that's that's a
real issue. And and they and they haven't tested this
out with seawater, right that it may work with sea water,
and if it does, that removes that particular problem, or

at least reduces it. Because another issue is that some
of the places that would stand to benefit the most
from this approach have the least access to fresh water
or at least disposable fresh water. Also, I'm not using
tons of water today. Yeah, so let's get rid of
that one ton of c O two. Uh. And and

also you know if they if those areas aren't located
near like a like the ocean, and they don't have
any basaltic rock under the ground in those areas, then
that that means you have to have transportation, right, You've
got to transport the CEO two after you've captured it
to a place where you can then dissolve it in
water and pump it down into the basalt. I guess

you transport it in an electric car. I mean, yeah,
that's but that really that does and and you've got
to hope the the place that's generating the electricity is
doing so in a way that isn't dumping yet more
CEO two in the atmosphere. This shows how complicated this
problem is, right, that this is a non trivial problem
in multiple ways, not just in the scale, but also

how how we can actually tackle it in a way
that ultimately is hopeful. Now, one thing I do want
to come back on is that I don't see you.
Maybe you could explain to me what you're thinking of it.
I don't see what the problem is. If they can
use seawater, like I don't think there's really any shortage
of seawater, and it's not that they wouldn't need to. Well,

if they can use seawater, that definitely reduces the problem dramatically.
But for places that are far inland that still have
a lack of fresh water, that that would still be
an issue. Right, So you think of like lots of
mainland China or India, places that may be miles and

miles away from the closest ocean, and so you still
are yet right, you still have some real problems there.
I mean uh. And and also you'd have to watch
out with anytime you're gathering that much water to use
it an industrial application, you have to watch out for
for where that water is coming from and how it's affecting,

how it's removal is affecting the environ meant that you're
removing it from CC above reefish you know, like like
fish probably want some of that. I think we just
have to accept that here and there, some fish are
going to get injected into the basaltic rock. It's really
gonna mess up future. Look at look at the fish

fossils here. It's not supposed to be there. What's going on? Weird?
It's almost like almost like people were more fish appeared
on Earth, forcefully throwing fish into the ground in limestone,
limestone encrusted fish. They ate very strangely. Oh man, I
could go for some seafood right now. So one of

the other things to point out is even if you
were to have the ideal situation as the project in
Iceland seems to be, it's still pretty expensive. It's more
expensive than other methods of carbon injection. Dr Hotter said
that it costs about seventeen dollars per ton of carbon dioxide,
whereas other methods range closer to between five and ten

dollars per ton. So, and that's in Iceland. Obviously, if
you were to try and build a facility out offshore
facility that's pushing c O two down into the sea floor,
that would probably be even more expensive per ton, you
would imagine, I mean, just the building the infrastructure alone
would be incredibly expensive. So the question then becomes, does

it still make financial sense to go with this approach
versus some other approach? Knowing that the problem is there
either way, right, we need a solution to the problem.
Just which solution makes the most sense economically, because we
can't just ignore that factor. I wish we could, because
that would be awesome if we didn't have to worry
about how much stuff costs. Arguably we would have a

lot more solutions to some of the biggest problems we
face today. But we do have to worry about that now.
There's another pilot program am I mentioned this earlier that's
going on here in the United States, and it's in Wallula, Washington,
and it's along of basalt deposit on the banks of
the Columbia River. So we have a similar project underway
here um and that that project the cost was around

two point two billion dollars at least that's what the
estimated cost was when they proposed it. I have no
idea how much it actually ended up costing. In fact,
this particular project was a little difficult to research because
it was one of those that got proposed. It was
ramping up to go into full on execution. Then the

cord was plugged. They plugged, the cord was pulled, unplugged,
the whole thing fell apart, is what I'm trying to say.
But brain, no work, no more. So the project was defunded, right,
it was canceled, But then initial work began anyway, A

and A proposal was written again, and that by two
thousand thirteen, the pilot pro program was actually working. Now
that they had started this in the early two thousand's,
arguing for it, planning for it, getting funding for it,
and then it got canceled. But in two thousand and
thirteen it got started again. So we're at a point
now where we should expect an update for this project,

but it hasn't. But the website hasn't been updated. I
couldn't tell. I went to the website and I looked
for for recent news, and the most recent update I
could see came from two thousand fourteen, and according to
what I saw, they said there was no significant carbon
dioxide leakage from the injection site, which is great news,

but there was nothing to say, you know what percentage
of it appears to have been mineralized since they started
the project. I didn't see any information along those lines,
so nothing that would verify the Iceland projects results using
a totally different well not a different approach, but a
different location. Right, So I'm hoping to see another update,

and you know, some sometimes this kind of thing happens,
like like as scientists are gathering the data for their
research and and pulling it all together, so sometimes you'll
you'll see drop offs and updates right before they publish something,
and and it's, yeah, it's It's also possible that it's
one of those things where you know, they have certain
staff in charge of updating the website, and who are
who might turn over. Maybe they are students who have

graduated and moved on, and it may be that they
just didn't ever replace those folks to continue that part.
It may be the project itself is completely on track.
I just don't know about it. No one would return
my phone calls, so I didn't call them some anti
social um. But yeah, I I think it's interesting that

this is not you know, the Iceland Project is not
the only place where this is being tasted. It's it's
great and it's and it's so um inspiring to to
see this kind of thinking applied to this really massive problem. Right.
And if it's if it's something that can be scaled
up and something that can work on a more widespread basis,

maybe we could see potentially a leveling off of the
amount of c O two emissions that we uh, like
the net gain and CEO two emissions we see over
a year, and possibly even not just a reduction from
from the fact that we're you know, using less fossil fuels,

but a reduction because of being able to capture and mineralize. Right.
And it's certainly not an excuse to leave your lights
on all night and you know whatever other terrible just
you know, sitting just burning coal for no reason, sitting
and sitting in your car with the car on, yeah,
for seven hours. Uh, I mean, you know, my car

is a c works really well and it's hot outside.
Is pretty is really hot outside today. I don't know
if you all have been out in the middle of
the day. I try not to be because I walk
in the morning and in the afternoon, and I don't
want to go through any more of that than I
already do. Earlier, I was standing in the sun and

the it was on my shirt, and my shirt felt
like a hot stove top. It was just crazy. Yeah. See, now,
that would be nice if we could reduce some of
those greenhouse gases and us over time reduce the amount
of heat. Yeah. So obviously, this whole idea of capturing carbon,

of reducing the greenhouse gases that we're releasing into the
atmosphere as wide ranging consequences, you know, the idea of
of trying to reduce the amount of climate change we
expect to see over the next several years. Even even
if we were to get a real good handle on
this right now, we know that those changes are going
to continue. It's not like there's just a switch that

we could flip and then everything of be fine. But
we do need to take some steps to to at
least mitigate those effects and potentially decrease the amount of
time that we will experience, uh, you know, non ideal
climate in lots of parts of the world. Uh. So

I'm very much encouraged by this project, even though there
there are these big limitations that we've pointed out. And
I've always said that being an optimist, in my view,
means not just hoping for the best, but also acknowledging
the challenges that are in the way so that we
might overcome them and not just become discouraged when we
encounter them. So here's hoping that this this project continues,

that's able to scale up even further. Perhaps we're able
to see related projects in other parts of the world,
and uh, it might be uh one good strategy for
dealing with carbon dioxide. I doubt it's ever going to
become the only or even the primary one, but it
could would certainly help. Right, it's not it's definitely not

hurting to capture some of that serio mineralizing. Absolutely, so
this was really cool. Big thanks again to Patrick who
wrote into now and and suggested this topic. We don't
mind appropriating it for ourselves because I mean, we work
on now so we're fine with taking that stuff. Yeah. Absolutely,

And uh and if you guys have not checked out
the Now podcast. Its official title is How Stuff Works Now,
which is impossible to google, but if you would like
to tune in, head on over to Now dot how
stuff Works dot com um or you know, try try
try searching for it on whatever podcast thing you like.
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there and about science yea, yeah, science, technology, culture sometimes
there's some There's lots of really awesome stories that that
appear on Now and if you subscribe to that show
you will get to hear them. And also, guys, if
you have any suggestions for our show, like you've got
a topic you would like us to cover, or you've

got any questions or comments about the stuff we talk about,
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