‘Clean’ coal and soda pop

An option much touted as a means of having our cake (power stations fired by fossil fuels, especially coal) and eating it (escaping runaway global warming while enjoying a high-energy lifestyle) is extracting carbon dioxide from flue gases, or even the atmosphere itself, and safely disposing of it in long-term storage. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is not a well-tried technology. Yet some authorities claim it is at the least a means of ‘tiding-over’ an economy that depends to such a degree on fossil carbon burning as an energy source that it seems unlikely that alternative, carbon-neutral sources can be deployed in time to stave off increasingly awful and plausible climate and thereby social scenarios. There are others who are convinced that CCS is merely an excuse to continue with ‘business as usual’, and therefore fraught with dangers. Whichever, there are elements of CCS that do concern geoscientists, such as where should it be stored and in what form. Leaving aside some of the geological issues of storage, such as depleted natural petroleum fields or deep aquifers, what happens to CO2 at depth? There are five possibilities: it remains as a gas; under high pressure it may take on liquid form (CO2 can exist only as gas or ‘dry ice’ at atmospheric pressure); it reacts with the rock itself to form some kind of carbonate; under moderate pressure and low temperature it may combine with water to form a gas-hydrate ‘ice’, as does methane; or it may dissolve in water under high pressure.

The ideal form for long-term storage would be in the form of solid carbonate, but that demands bicarbonate ions combining with calcium, magnesium or perhaps sodium ions. One possibility is through dissolution in highly saline groundwater. The chemical reactions are not complex, but depend on the solubility of carbonates being exceeded because of massive increases in bicarbonate concentrations. However, experiments have had little success. Another means of solid storage is by the combination of atmospheric CO2 with calcium hydroxide to form calcium carbonate, which is what happens when lime plaster slowly ‘cures’. The downside is that the only means of making Ca(OH)2 is by kilning limestone: no free lunch there. To cut a long story short, a view is emerging that CO2 pumped, in whatever form, into wet rock will end up dissolving in groundwater, to form vast quantities of ‘sparkling’ water, or ‘soda pop’ (Gilfillan, S.M.V. and 10 others 2009. Solubility trapping in formation water as dominant CO2 sink in natural gas fields. Nature, v. 458, p. 614-618). The British, Canadian, US and Chinese team investigated nine natural gas fields in which CO2 is present as well as petroleum gas, using noble gases and carbon isotopes as tracers of the chemical fate of the natural CO2 as the reservoir rocks filled with oil and natural gas during maturation. They discovered that the bulk of CO2 ended up dissolving to form a weakly acidic water under pressure. This is a recipe for filling huge analogies of soda siphons. They did discover that some CO2 ended up as solid carbonate, but no more than 15%. As those who add Perrier or Volvic to their Scotch should know, carbonated springs are not unknown. Consequently, CCS that uses confined aquifers poses the danger of eventual leakage, whether CO2 is stored as gas, liquid or in solution. Petroleum geologists often claim that no trap is leak proof, and extensive areas of gas leakage are known over most oil fields; they are an important sign for explorationists, if they can be detected. The other issue is that fans of CCS set much store in re-use of depleted commercial oil and gas fields for sequestration. Such fields have already been depressurised, and nobody knows whether or not they were leaky to gas and water.

See also: Aeschbach-Hertig, W. 2009. Clean coal and sparkling water. Nature, v. 458, p. 583-4.

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