seeing green

Houston researchers snag government funds for net-zero emissions projects

Both Rice University and the University of Houston were selected by the Department of Energy to receive funds for ongoing research projects. Photo via Getty Images

Rice University and the University of Houston were two of four national institutions to receive sizable grants from the Department of Energy last month to go toward the research and development of projects that will improve CO2 storage to help move the country toward the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Each of the four projects works to advance long-term, commercial-scale geologic sequestration of CO2. According to a release from the DOE, the process of carbon capture and storage (known as CSS) separates and captures CO2 from the emissions of industrial processes before it is released into the atmosphere. Once captured, the CO2 is then injected into deep underground geologic formations, known as caprock.

However, during seismic events, like an earthquake or volcanic eruption, the CO2 can leak through the ground and contaminate the water supply.

"Large scale carbon capture efforts are vital to getting America emissions free by 2050, and how we store this CO2 must be safe, secure and permanent," said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. "The R&D investments in new tools and technology to monitor underground activity near CO2 storage sites will help us minimize risk from natural events like earthquakes, safeguard the environment and water supply, and get us that much closer to our clean energy goals."

Rice was awarded nearly $1.2 million from the DOE for its project that aims to develop a new strategy for monitoring seal integrity in the CCS process. The project "has the potential to provide a powerful platform for identifying CO2 leakage through reactivated faults or fracture zones," the statement said.

UH received a nearly $800,000 grant for its project that will work to determine cost-effective seismic data processing technologies that will automatically detect faults on 3D seismic migration images.

The project is being developed by Yingcai Zheng at the University of Houston in collaboration with Los Alamos National Lab and Vecta Oil and Gas and aims will help not only estimate seismic activity, but will also be able to estimate the fluid leakage pathways in certain regions, according to a separate release from UH.

"Most think of applied geophysics as linked to the oil and gas industry," Zheng said in the statement. "While that is true, when we think of the energy transition and how to achieve our goals, it is important to realize that this cannot happen without studying the geophysics of the subsurface – in a way, it literally holds the well-being of humanity's future."

The remaining two projects that received grants from the DOE come from the Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio and The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. In total the DOE issues $4 million to support the projects.

A number of Houston energy leaders are looking at smarter ways to store CO2. This spring, Joe Blommaert, the Houston-based president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, said that he envisions creating a $100 billion carbon-capture hub along the Houston Ship Channel. And that same month Occidental's venture arm, Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, announced plans to construct and operate a pilot plant that would convert carbon dioxide into feedstocks.

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Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity. Photo via Getty Images

Three big businesses — Air Liquide, BASF, and Shell — have added their firepower to the effort to promote large-scale carbon capture and storage for the Houston area’s industrial ecosystem.

These companies join 11 others that in 2021 threw their support behind the initiative. Participants are evaluating how to use safe carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology at Houston-area facilities that provide energy, power generation, and advanced manufacturing for plastics, motor fuels, and packaging.

Other companies backing the CCS project are Calpine, Chevron, Dow, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Linde, LyondellBasell, Marathon Petroleum, NRG Energy, Phillips 66, and Valero.

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity.

“Large-scale carbon capture and storage in the Houston region will be a cornerstone for the world’s energy transition, and these companies’ efforts are crucial toward advancing CCS development to achieve broad scale commercial impact,” Charles McConnell, director of University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, says in a news release.

McConnell and others say CCS could help Houston and the rest of the U.S. net-zero goals while generating new jobs and protecting current jobs.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from industrial activities that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and then injecting it into deep underground geologic formations for secure and permanent storage. Carbon dioxide from industrial users in the Houston area could be stored in nearby onshore and offshore storage sites.

An analysis of U.S Department of Energy estimates shows the storage capacity along the Gulf Coast is large enough to store about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to more than 130 years’ worth of industrial and power generation emissions in the United States, based on 2018 data.

“Carbon capture and storage is not a single technology, but rather a series of technologies and scientific breakthroughs that work in concert to achieve a profound outcome, one that will play a significant role in the future of energy and our planet,” says Gretchen Watkins, U.S. president of Shell. “In that spirit, it’s fitting this consortium combines CCS blueprints and ambitions to crystalize Houston’s reputation as the energy capital of the world while contributing to local and U.S. plans to help achieve net-zero emissions.”

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