The path is promising, but time is needed to develop a truly viable energy recovery technology. Subject was highlight of RCGI event in São Paulo

It is much cheaper to capture and store carbon dioxide (CO2) generated from biomass that carbon coming from fossil sources. The difference between Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) done from biomass and that which is take from fossils could be as much as US$90.00 per ton of carbon. This estimate was presented by the Director of Science of the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN), Andre Faaij, during the workshop “Carbon Capture, Storage and Use, and Bioenergy”, which was held February 25 and 26, in the Institute of Energy and Environment of the University of São Paulo (IEE/USP), in São Paulo. Furthermore, experts say that CCS technology applied to biomass, generates negative emissions.

Organized by the FAPESP Shell Research Centre for Gas Innovation (RCGI), in a partnership with the Consulate General of the Netherlands in Brazil, the event united experts from Brazil and The Netherlands to discuss the perspectives for the application of BECCS (Bioenergy with CCCS) technologies. Besides the Scientific Director of the RCGI, Julio Meneghini; the Dutch Consul for Science, Technology, and Innovation, Petra Smits; and the Secretary of Infrastructure and the Environment of the State of São Paulo, Marcos Penido; also present at the event were representatives of Shell, USP, and the Research Funding Authority of the State of São Paulo (FAPESP).

Actual cost – According to Faaij, in Europe, the first CCS initiatives began ten years ago, to capture CO2 from gases emitted by thermal-electric plants running on coal or natural gas. “The percentage of CO2 was 5%, 6%, which would require a large investment to perform the process of concentrating and absorbing carbon. The price was high, something like one hundred dollars per ton, perhaps a little less if the process were more efficient,” he said.

“Now, if we look at the fundamental processes of converting biomass, in order to generate energy, like fermentation, for example, we will see that the plants deliver pure CO2 as a by-product of the reactions. Thus, it is only necessary to capture and compress it. All the energy and process engineering are simplified and it is possible to do this at a cost of, maybe, ten dollars per ton,” he added.

According to Faaij, the models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to simulate these costs are actually macromodels, with a limited input of details, which is understandable, because they are global models. The IPCC calculates that the cost would be somewhere from US$ 135 to US$ 5,500 per ton in 2030. “Taking into account the entire portfolio of mitigation options – renewables, energy efficiency measures, new processes, the future cars – one perceives that there is much to be done, but also a large part of the mitigation potential can be carried out at a cost of less than one hundred dollars per ton,” he stated.

Faaij also listed the main applications that the BECCS would have in industry and in energy production. “Energy production processes using ‘flex’ fuels, such as thermal plants powered by coal and/or natural gas, plants that produce synthetic fuels, processes based on fermentation and anaerobic digestion, biorefineries, petrochemical companies, the food industry – in all of these sectors, the BECCS would be welcome. But storage facilities would need to be less than 300 kilometers away, the energy infrastructure must be compatible, and complex, large-scale storage systems would be indispensable.”

Promising Path – Another advantage pointed out by experts is that capturing carbon generated by biomass and storing it results in negative emissions – because the emissions generated by these energy sources would already be neutralized by the nature of the resources themselves, which are renewable. “The Netherlands need negative emissions, in order to achieve the goal of a 95% reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and the production of biofuels with CCS seems to be one of the cheapest and most promising paths to be taken,” stated Martin Junginger, of the Copernicus Institute, at Utrecht University.

He emphasized that the mix of options suggested by industry in his country, for reducing the emissions of their plants, includes energy efficiency measures; power-to-heat processes; renewable energy sources for generating heat, like geothermal energy and biomass; hydrogen; and CCS.

Proof of viability – Professor Sacha Kersten, of the University of Twente, believes that time is needed for developing a truly viable technology for energy recovery. “For it to achieve a relevant share of the energy mix used by the country and globally will take time: that’s how it was with the use of coal and petroleum and it is now the same with renewable energy sources, such as solar, aeolic, and biomass.”

Kersten is an expert in biomass conversion, and focused on his presentation the processes of gasification, liquefaction, pyrolysis, production of biochemicals and biomaterials, artificial photosynthesis and carbon capture. “Gasification can be applied to liquid biomass – such as oils, glycerol, sugar solution and algae – or solid biomass, such as wood, to obtain fuel gas, synthetic gas, and biochemicals,” the Professor explained.

He also emphasized the importance of simple molecules, like methanol, which has extensive applications in industry and can be obtained from biomass. But he called attention to a purification stage that is necessary for obtaining good quality products from this renewable source. “Many products from the conversion of biomass come with contaminants, since it is composed of various elements. That entails the need of purification stages, which makes the process more expensive.”

CCS in pre-salt – During the event, researchers also spoke about the public perception of CCS projects and about the perspectives for capturing and storing carbon, with the pre-salt fields in mind. “Pre-salt has ambitious production goals and has actually increased its productivity every year. There is a huge associated amount of natural gas that often comes with a high CO2 content, in an environment quite far from the coast. In those cases, the existing floating platforms could be used as opportunities for technological tests and demonstrations in situ,” was the suggestion of Professor Pacelli Zitha, of Delft University.

He mentioned the failed Barendrecht project, the first Dutch attempt at onshore carbon storage, which was rejected by the local community, causing the project to be aborted. “No one thought of asking the opinion of the local population and that was a big mistake. The project was technologically good, and it was a good learning opportunity. The position of the Dutch government, today, is that, first, we will test offshore storage. There are two more projects underway, with this focus: one in the North Sea, in a field called K-12B; and another in an offshore field called P-18-4, in a province in the south of the Netherlands.”

Hans Bolscher, of Trinomics, an economic policy consultancy, CCS has many enemies and few friends. Citing Abraham Lincoln, Bolscher stated that the most efficient way of overcoming the resistance is to transform enemies into friends. “The is much more acceptance of Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU) – than of CCS. There are many arguments and we must listen to them. First, people think that CCS is keeping the fossil fuel industry alive, and that is true. Second, they think that CCS is financed by the petroleum industry, and they are right. They also think that, first, we should take care of energy efficiency and of implementing more renewable options. And they are not wrong about that. But we know that CCS is part of the solution for GHG emissions. Therefore, we cannot wait for people to like CCS. If we get acceptance, that is already a good deal.”

In the case of Brazil, public perception of the subject is practically zero, as was shown by Professor George Câmara, of the Federal University of Bahia. “We did a study of CCS in the interior of the State of Bahia, where the petroleum industry has existed for over 70 years, and the people had no idea what we were talking about. But when we talked about generating jobs, or of improvements that may come in the wake of the oil industry, they understood, because they already had that experience with Petrobras,” said Professor George Câmara.

Vocation for renewables – Brazil’s potential for producing biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, highlighted numerous times during the event. The Director of the Datagro consultancy, Guilherme Nastari, for example, stressed the importance of RenovaBio for the transportation sector of Brazil. While showing a graph of the Brazilian Association of Automotive Engineering, he also stated that flex and hybrid vehicles running on ethanol have less emissions than electric vehicles that are not 100% powered by renewable energy sources. “Ethanol is a modern option and efficient in mitigating emissions in transportation.”

Professor Celma Ribeiro, of USP’s Polytechnic School, who works with modeling at the RCGI, set up a timeline of Brazilian ethanol policies and spoke about the complexity of the mix of products of the sugar-energy industry in Brazil, like sugar, ethanol, cachaça, electricity, paper, biogas, plastic, chemicals, animal feed, etc. “The choice of what will be produced, right at the beginning of the harvest time, depends on economic factors, changes in demand, price alterations, and also on public policies,” she summarized.

“A lot can be done with biomass, but it is necessary to choose a strategy, because it is impossible to do everything at once. In Brazil, we always use the bagasse to generate electricity and do cogeneration, but it also can be used to generate other products. There is not enough raw material for so many products; therefore, choices must be made,” was the summary view of Professor Suani Coelho, of IIE/USP, who led the organizing of this event. The researcher is also the coordinator of an RCGI research group that is seeking to estimate the potential of biomethane for increasing the supply of natural gas in the State of São Paulo.

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