Guest essay by Eric Worrall
A study of naturally occurring CO2 reservoirs has given a boost to carbon capture projects, by concluding mild acidity of CO2 / Carbonic Acid does not significantly corrode the rocks holding it in, even on 100,000 year timescales. But this study does nothing to allay my concerns about the hideous dangers I believe are associated with this technology.
The Press Release;
Carbon dioxide can be stored underground for ten times the length needed to avoid climatic impact
Study of natural-occurring 100,000 year-old CO2 reservoirs shows no significant corroding of ‘cap rock’, suggesting the greenhouse gas hasn’t leaked back out – one of the main concerns with greenhouse gas reduction proposal of carbon capture and storage.
New research shows that natural accumulations of carbon dioxide (CO2) that have been trapped underground for around 100,000 years have not significantly corroded the rocks above, suggesting that storing CO2 in reservoirs deep underground is much safer and more predictable over long periods of time than previously thought.
These findings, published today in the journal Nature Communications, demonstrate the viability of a process called carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a solution to reducing carbon emissions from coal and gas-fired power stations, say researchers.
CCS involves capturing the carbon dioxide produced at power stations, compressing it, and pumping it into reservoirs in the rock more than a kilometre underground.
The CO2 must remain buried for at least 10,000 years to avoid the impacts on climate. One concern is that the dilute acid, formed when the stored CO2 dissolves in water present in the reservoir rocks, might corrode the rocks above and let the CO2 escape upwards.
By studying a natural reservoir in Utah, USA, where CO2 released from deeper formations has been trapped for around 100,000 years, a Cambridge-led research team has now shown that CO2 can be securely stored underground for far longer than the 10,000 years needed to avoid climatic impacts.
Their new study shows that the critical component in geological carbon storage, the relatively impermeable layer of “cap rock” that retains the CO2, can resist corrosion from CO2-saturated water for at least 100,000 years.
“Carbon capture and storage is seen as essential technology if the UK is to meet its climate change targets,” says principle investigator Professor Mike Bickle, Director of the Cambridge Centre for Carbon Capture and Storage at the University of Cambridge.
“A major obstacle to the implementation of CCS is the uncertainty over the long-term fate of the CO2 which impacts regulation, insurance, and who assumes the responsibility for maintaining CO2 storage sites. Our study demonstrates that geological carbon storage can be safe and predictable over many hundreds of thousands of years.”
The key component in the safety of geological storage of CO2 is an impermeable cap rock over the porous reservoir in which the CO2 is stored. Although the CO2 will be injected as a dense fluid, it is still less dense than the brines originally filling the pores in the reservoir sandstones, and will rise until trapped by the relatively impermeable cap rocks.
“Some earlier studies, using computer simulations and laboratory experiments, have suggested that these cap rocks might be progressively corroded by the CO2-charged brines, formed as CO2 dissolves, creating weaker and more permeable layers of rock several metres thick and jeopardising the secure retention of the CO2,” explains lead author Dr Niko Kampman.
“However, these studies were either carried out in the laboratory over short timescales or based on theoretical models. Predicting the behaviour of CO2 stored underground is best achieved by studying natural CO2 accumulations that have been retained for periods comparable to those needed for effective storage.”
To better understand these effects, this study, funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council and the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, examined a natural reservoir where large natural pockets of CO2 have been trapped in sedimentary rocks for hundreds of thousands of years. Sponsored by Shell, the team drilled deep down below the surface into one of these natural CO2 reservoirs to recover samples of the rock layers and the fluids confined in the rock pores.
The team studied the corrosion of the minerals comprising the rock by the acidic carbonated water, and how this has affected the ability of the cap rock to act as an effective trap over geological periods of time. Their analysis studied the mineralogy and geochemistry of cap rock and included bombarding samples of the rock with neutrons at a facility in Germany to better understand any changes that may have occurred in the pore structure and permeability of the cap rock.
They found that the CO2 had very little impact on corrosion of the minerals in the cap rock, with corrosion limited to a layer only 7cm thick. This is considerably less than the amount of corrosion predicted in some earlier studies, which suggested that this layer might be many metres thick.
The researchers also used computer simulations, calibrated with data collected from the rock samples, to show that this layer took at least 100,000 years to form, an age consistent with how long the site is known to have contained CO2.
The research demonstrates that the natural resistance of the cap rock minerals to the acidic carbonated waters makes burying CO2 underground a far more predictable and secure process than previously estimated.
“With careful evaluation, burying carbon dioxide underground will prove very much safer than emitting CO2 directly to the atmosphere,” says Bickle.
The Cambridge research into the CO2 reservoirs in Utah was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (CRIUS consortium of Cambridge, Manchester and Leeds universities and the British Geological Survey) and the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
The project involved an international consortium of researchers led by Cambridge, together with Aarchen University (Germany), Utrecht University (Netherlands), Utah State University (USA), the Julich Centre for Neutron Science, (Garching, Germany), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (USA), the British Geological Survey, and Shell Global Solutions International (Netherlands).
N. Kampman, et al. “Observational evidence confirms modelling of the long-term integrity of CO2-reservoir caprocks” Nature Communications 28 July 2016.
The abstract of the study;
Observational evidence confirms modelling of the long-term integrity of CO2-reservoir caprocks
Storage of anthropogenic CO2 in geological formations relies on a caprock as the primary seal preventing buoyant super-critical CO2 escaping. Although natural CO2 reservoirs demonstrate that CO2 may be stored safely for millions of years, uncertainty remains in predicting how caprocks will react with CO2-bearing brines. This uncertainty poses a significant challenge to the risk assessment of geological carbon storage. Here we describe mineral reaction fronts in a CO2 reservoir-caprock system exposed to CO2 over a timescale comparable with that needed for geological carbon storage. The propagation of the reaction front is retarded by redox-sensitive mineral dissolution reactions and carbonate precipitation, which reduces its penetration into the caprock to ~7 cm in ~105 years. This distance is an order-of-magnitude smaller than previous predictions. The results attest to the significance of transport-limited reactions to the long-term integrity of sealing behaviour in caprocks exposed to CO2.
Given that CO2 seems stable when pumped into correctly surveyed reservoirs, why am I concerned?
My concern is the sheer volume of CO2 which would have to to be buried to make a difference. It would only take one mistake, one contractor shortcut too many, to create a loss of life on a scale comparable to the deaths which would result from a large nuclear explosion in a populated area.
Consider the 1986 Lake Nyos disaster, which occurred when a “natural” source of CO2 suddenly burped – thankfully in a sparsely populated area.
Although a sudden outgassing of CO2 had occurred at Lake Monoun in 1984, a similar threat from Lake Nyos was not anticipated.
Cattle suffocated by carbon dioxide from Lake Nyos
On August 21, 1986, a limnic eruption occurred at Lake Nyos, triggering the sudden release of about 100,000–300,000 tons (some sources state as much as 1.6 million tons) of CO2. This gas cloud rose at nearly 100 kilometres per hour (62 mph) and spilled over the northern lip of the lake into a valley running roughly east-west from Cha to Subum. It then rushed down two valleys branching off to the north, displacing all of the air and suffocating some 1,700 people within 25 kilometres (16 mi) of the lake, mostly rural villagers, as well as 3,500 livestock. The villages most affected were Cha, Nyos, and Subum. Scientists concluded from evidence that a 100 m (330 ft) fountain of water and foam formed at the surface of the lake. The huge amount of water rising suddenly caused much turbulence in the water, spawning a wave of at least 25 metres (82 ft) that would scour the shore of one side.
One survivor, Joseph Nkwain from Subum, described himself when he awoke after the gases had struck:
“I could not speak. I became unconscious. I could not open my mouth because then I smelled something terrible . . . I heard my daughter snoring in a terrible way, very abnormal . . . When crossing to my daughter’s bed . . . I collapsed and fell. I was there till nine o’clock in the (Friday) morning . . . until a friend of mine came and knocked at my door . . . I was surprised to see that my trousers were red, had some stains like honey. I saw some . . . starchy mess on my body. My arms had some wounds . . . I didn’t really know how I got these wounds . . . I opened the door . . . I wanted to speak, my breath would not come out . . . My daughter was already dead . . . I went into my daughter’s bed, thinking that she was still sleeping. I slept till it was 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon . . . on Friday. (Then) I managed to go over to my neighbors’ houses. They were all dead . . . I decided to leave . . . (because) most of my family was in Wum . . . I got my motorcycle . . . A friend whose father had died left with me (for) Wum . . . As I rode . . . through Nyos I didn’t see any sign of any living thing . . . (When I got to Wum), I was unable to walk, even to talk . . . my body was completely weak.”
Carbon dioxide, being about 1.5 times as dense as air, caused the cloud to “hug” the ground and descend down the valleys, where various villages were located. The mass was about 50 metres (160 ft) thick and it travelled downward at a rate of 20–50 kilometres per hour (12–31 mph). For roughly 23 kilometres (14 mi) the cloud remained condensed and dangerous, suffocating many of the people sleeping in Nyos, Kam, Cha, and Sebum. About 4,000 inhabitants fled the area, and many of these developed respiratory problems, lesions, and paralysis as a result of the gases.
It is not known what triggered the catastrophic outgassing. Most geologists suspect a landslide, but some believe that a small volcanic eruption may have occurred on the bed of the lake. A third possibility is that cool rainwater falling on one side of the lake triggered the overturn. Others still believe there was a small earthquake, but as witnesses did not report feeling any tremors on the morning of the disaster, this hypothesis is unlikely. Whatever the cause, the event resulted in the rapid mixing of the supersaturated deep water with the upper layers of the lake, where the reduced pressure allowed the stored CO2 to effervesce out of solution.
It is believed that about 1.2 cubic kilometres (0.29 cu mi) of gas was released. The normally blue waters of the lake turned a deep red after the outgassing, due to iron-rich water from the deep rising to the surface and being oxidised by the air. The level of the lake dropped by about a metre and trees near the lake were knocked down.
The 1-300,000 tons of CO2 which was released from Lake Nyos is about the amount of CO2 produced by one medium coal power station over 6 months or so of normal operation. According to the US EPA, America produces around 5000,000,000 tons of CO2 every year.
One slip-up, one corrupt contractor, one mistake which led to the abrupt release of 0.006% of the CO2 which would have to be captured and buried to make America “carbon neutral”, could kill millions of people, if it occurred near a major population centre.