U.S. Fossil Energy Chief Puts Carbon Mitigation into Business

Assistant Energy Secretary for Fossil energy, Charles McConnell as 2012 CCUS Conferenceby Tom Imerito

During this year’s Carbon Capture Utilization and Sequestration Conference in Pittsburgh, DOE’s Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy, Chuck McConnell spoke with evangelistic fervor about an elegantly practical, scientifically proven and almost ridiculously obvious way of reinvigorating carbon management which, in the shadow of failed carbon emissions legislation and the economic downturn, clearly needs a breath of fresh air. In a telephone interview after the conference McConnell talked about the genesis of his approach.

During McConnell’s 2010 interview for the DOE Fossil position Energy Secretary Steven Chu asked him to cite the single most important step necessary to effectively manage carbon emissions. For McConnell the response was easy. As vice president for carbon management technologies at the Battelle Memorial Institute, he had been looking for business models for carbon management for years. Before 2008 he looked for ways to commercialize the disposal of the industrial carbon dioxide that carbon legislation would have mandated. Then after 2008 when carbon legislation failed to materialize, he began to look for a pure-profit commodity model.

He suggested to Chu that given the absence of carbon legislation and in consideration of the economic downturn it was essential to find a robust business model to get CCS technology off government-supported drawing boards and into the marketplace. Doing so would enable the full utilization of U.S. fossil energy reserves without pushing the world over the climate heating brink.

Until that point, carbon management research had focused largely on geologic storage of CO2 in saline aquifers, an approach that required substantial investments in primary research to prove that it actually worked. And if it worked, it would take massive infrastructure investments to put the systems in place – a scenario neither the federal government nor private sector investors were likely to embrace.

McConnell recommended expanding Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) a forty year-old oil industry practice that used CO2 to extract residual oil from depleted wells. It was less costly and less risky than saline storage. A fully functional industry was on the ground and running. The only thing it lacked was a large enough supply of naturally occurring CO2 to expand. Anthropogenic CO2 captured at fossil power plants could fill the shortfall. He got the job.

Once in office McConnell repositioned the carbon capture and sequestration value proposition. No longer would the technology’s success depend on the whims of stakeholders variously supporting, objecting, promoting, obstructing and debating CCS in local, regional and global climate change forums. Now that carbon dioxide had metamorphosed from a dangerous waste product into a desirable commodity, carbon mitigation would become a way to make money.
Since he was advocating for the positive use of CO2 rather than its simple disposal, he added the word Utilization to the name. CCS –short for Carbon Capture and Sequestration – became CCUS, for Carbon Capture, Utilization and Sequestration. With the addition of a single letter to the technology’s acronym McConnell revitalized a flagging technology at the same time giving it a patriotic, albeit unofficial, Made in America sensibility. Without inventing a single widget McConnell shifted the thrust of the carbon management business model from climate change and tax avoidance to energy security and profit generation.

As a practical matter, Enhanced Oil Recovery involves injecting pressurized carbon dioxide into a depleted oil field to push the stranded oil toward a battery of extraction wells. The technique is typically used on wells that have undergone two previous rounds of extraction – primary extraction which uses the oil’s natural pressure to get it out of the ground – and secondary extraction by water flooding which, as the name implies, uses injected water to push residual oil toward an extraction well. But because water and oil don’t mix, even after water flooding, as much as 60 percent of the original oil may remain stranded in the formation.

Remarkably, of the 596 billion barrels of oil originally contained in U.S. wells, 400 billion barrels remain stranded. Of that 400 billion, 85 billion are considered technically recoverable. McConnell calls this untapped resource America’s hidden gold. All we have to do is get it. Fortunately, since 1972 the enhanced oil industry has been doing just that.

Not that EOR is a matter of alchemy. As with a lot of things that look easy, it’s complicated. At its most basic level, CCUS technology is based upon the fact that when pressurized to about 1,200 pounds, CO2 gas transforms into an exotic state of matter known as a supercritical fluid which flows like water but mixes like steam – the perfect material to “flush” the stranded oil out of a depleted well after water flooding.

While a portion of the supercritical carbon dioxide mixes with the residual oil, effectively thinning it and making it extractable, sixty percent-or-so clings to pores in the rock strata which previously held the oil. There it stays, sequestered from the atmosphere once and for all. Upon extraction the CO2 that mixed with the oil to thin it is chemically removed and reused in another round of injection and extraction.

Today, five percent of U.S. domestic oil -more than 300,000 barrels per day – is produced using enhanced oil recovery. McConnell believes that expanding EOR can push the number to 30 to 40 percent by 2030. The only limiting factor is the fact that the naturally occurring geologic sources of CO2, which have supplied the industry until now, are nearing the end of their production lives. McConnell’s captured anthropogenic CO2 looks like an ideal replacement source.

Once fully tapped, depleted U.S. wells are expected to supply sufficient CO2 storage capacity for eighty to one hundred years of industrial carbon sequestration in the United States. In addition to finding a permanent home for captured carbon dioxide McConnell’s strategy is designed to reduce dependency on foreign oil and become a first mover in a very exportable technology.

Although McConnell’s vision is promising, at this juncture, the path to fully realizing CCUS is not a done deal. Even with naturally occurring CO2, the economics of EOR tread a delicate balance between oil prices and carbon prices. Recent increases in oil prices make EOR economically attractive, but when oil prices go down, the expense of CO2 can make EOR economically unfeasible.

The economics are even more challenging for the capture side of the CCUS equation. While stripping CO2 out of fossil streams either before or after combustion is do-able it takes a lot of energy, which means it is not cheap. Estimates suggest that presently available technologies would impose an energy penalty of up to 40 percent, which breaks the deal. But given the obvious economic incentive to keep the deal alive, energy researchers are in hot pursuit of ways to bring down the price of carbon capture.

On the infrastructure side of the picture, the cost of retrofitting existing U.S. coal plants to capture CO2 ranges from about $30 to $100 per ton when spread over the life of a plant. For carbon priced at $30/ton EOR is very attractive – at $100, not so attractive. Fortunately, the existing EOR industry is served by 1,500 miles of CO2 pipeline, which eases the burden on at least some of the early term infrastructure costs.

Although the United States does not now have a single commercial power plant capable of capturing CO2, fifty-three industrial projects funded in part by the Department of Energy to the tune of about $3 billion are currently underway to demonstrate, innovate, characterize, optimize and improve the physics, chemistry, geology and engineering of CCUS technology.

On one hand the economic and technical obstacles to realizing CCUS are formidable. But on the other hand, Chuck McConnell’s quest to transform an economic burden into a money-making new business tends to make the obstacles disappear into – well – thin air.

Penn State’s Millennium Science Complex Gives Wings to the Idea of Convergence

Penn State Milliennium Science Complexby Tom Imerito

As I drove to State College from my home in Pittsburgh last Sunday evening the rapidly changing weather brought to mind the three states of matter – gaseous air, liquid rain, and solid crystals of snow – the structural ingredients of materials science.  In an ironic and aggravating way, the unseasonable weather coincided perfectly with my journey to Materials Day, Penn State’s annual celebration of the latest innovations in the field of materials science.  Hosted by the Materials Research Institute, this year’s theme was Converging on Materials, a reference to the idea that advancements in instrumentation and computation are compelling the merger of scientific disciplines.

Today, those advancements allow life scientists to look at living matter at such close range that before long biology morphs into chemistry.  Chemists can see things so closely that physics quickly enters the picture. And engineers designing nanoscale materials and devices for use in living bodies need to collaborate with experts who understand the finer points of how bodies work.

For the first time Materials Day took place in Penn State’s new Millennium Science Complex, a massive, futuristic testament to the idea of convergence.  Designed expressly to encourage intellectual cross-pollination and collaboration between research scientists at the Materials Research Institute, the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, and the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, the new complex is comprised of a pair of block-long, three-story wings situated at right angles to each other.  One wing is dedicated to the physical sciences; the other to the life sciences.  Where they join at one corner the first and second floors are cut diagonally to form entrances to the wings, while the cantilevered third floors continue in mid-air and join to form a canopy over a garden plaza situated between the entrances.  Inside, on the cantilevered third floor, the convergence of the two wings provides a common area for the intermingling of people and ideas from both the physical and life sciences wings.

The futuristic look of the complex stands in marked contrast to the conventional brick and limestone buildings nearby.  But beyond architectural pzazz, the complex is a study in practical utility.  Buried beneath the entry plaza, an area of the structure’s basement is built upon a separate foundation isolated from the rest of the building and the bustling environment surrounding it.  Shielded from electromagnetic interference, and temperature-controlled by vibration-free, wall-mounted heat and cooling panels, the subterranean instrumentation rooms are sufficiently free of outside noise and vibration to provide an ideal environment for the operation of microscopes powerful enough to characterize and visualize virtually any material, whether vegetable, mineral or animal, at sizes as small as atoms.

As a tour guide escorted my cohort of visitors through the complex, the openness of the floor plan was striking. We passed administrative offices, open work areas, clean rooms, and laboratories for dry and wet processes, microscopy, electronics, and nanotechnology. Periodically interspersed along the corridors open conference areas outfitted with white boards and computer terminals provided space for impromptu discussions.  In addition to the university’s nano-fabrication laboratory, the complex houses state-of-the-art facilities for research in the areas of functional polymers, electronic materials, biophotonics, infectious diseases, microscopy, flow cytometry, microbiology, virology, immunology and neural engineering.

As we walked, corner windows provided delightful views of multicolored perennials arranged in beds on the green rooftops overhanging lower floors. The addition of a storm-water recycling system, heat recovery wheels and light/heat efficient windows, makes the building LEED certified.

On an aesthetic level the Millennium Science Center is inspirational to look at, walk through and think about.  On practical level it integrates and leverages knowledge, talent and technology for the improvement of the human condition.  The symbolic value of providing a mid-air meeting place for scientists from the converging fields of life and physical sciences gives testament to the creative vision of architect, Rafael Vinoly.  It cannot be a coincidence that the complex takes the shape of a bird with outstretched wings and raised head.  Can it be flying anywhere other than toward the future of science?

© Copyright 2012 Thomas P. Imerito/ Science Communications

Photo Credit: Nathan Cox Photography

Taking a Ride in Carnegie Mellon's Driverless SUV

Race Day at Robot City

by Tom Imerito

It’s not often that a scientific trial exudes the festive tone of a carnival, but this one did.  On a scorching day in June, Carnegie Mellon University’s Tartan Racing Team, assembled at Robot City on the former site of LTV Steel on the banks of the Monongahela.  Today, the team’s driverless SUV, named Boss, would undergo qualification testing by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) for inclusion on the list of 36 elite competitors in this coming November’s $2 million Urban Challenge.  The Urban Challenge will be a simulated battlefield supply mission run at an urban military training facility in Victorville, California on November 3. [Continue Reading…]