Carbon capture and storage - pioneering a low carbon future

Supplementary content information

An introduction to the RCUK Energy Programme, and how it is helping the transition to a low-carbon economy. This excerpt looks at the technology of carbon capture.

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Professor Stefano Brandani – University of Edinburgh

What you see behind us is a machine that was specifically designed and built at the University of Edinburgh to test the novel materials that our chemistry laboratories are manufacturing throughout the UK for the purpose of designing novel processes for capturing CO2. It is essential for us to be able to predict how these materials will behave in a process that is coupled to a coal fired power station.

Professor Jon Gibbins – Carbon Capture Research, University of Edinburgh

A lot of people don’t really understand the contribution of carbon capture and storage to the energy mix, because we’re not talking about necessarily how much energy you can get from carbon capture and storage. What we’re really talking about is tackling climate change. You can say actually a pretty good solution for climate change is just to make sure that all the fossil energy you use, gets used with carbon capture and storage. We can’t carry on putting fossil carbon into the atmosphere.

The work we do here at Edinburgh covers a lot of different scales. We’re running a large UK network that pulls together academics at all the universities working on carbon capture and storage in the UK. We’re working on better ways to capture carbon dioxide and most of all we’re training the next generation of people who will take that on. We’re seeing a need to develop the UK’s energy system, build it back up again and we need to bring on the young people to do that.

Behind me is Longannet Power Station owned by Scottish Power. It’s the largest power plant in Scotland and it’s likely to be the site of the UK’s first carbon capture and storage demonstration. Longannet at the moment is putting out millions of tons of carbon dioxide a year and all of that, or nearly all of that, could get taken away and put out securely under the North Sea. What’s actually really interesting as well with power plants like this is you can burn biomass. Biomass has taken the CO2 out of the air, if you then put it back in to the air its carbon neutral but if you don’t put it back into the air, you capture it and send it away, then you are actually taking CO2 out of the air. So not only could you reduce omissions, you can actually go carbon negative with carbon capture and storage. Coal fired power plants are particularly good at burning all sorts of things, like waste wood and even sewage sludge.

If we can get carbon capture and storage started quickly on power plants like Longannet, then we’ve got a reasonable chance of getting a good outcome in global climate change negotiations around 2020. Longannet is important because it is a retrofit project and we can get started quickly building there. China’s got a lot of existing power plants and those need retrofitting but if we don’t have CCS ready, if we haven’t demonstrated that we’re prepared to do it here in the UK, then when we go to China in 2020 and say guys cut your emissions, they’ll say the only way they can do it is with carbon capture and storage. But we haven’t seen that it’s been demonstrated how to do it, we haven’t seen how you’re committed to spending that money and we won’t be successful. But if we can get it done quickly and build up maybe five gigawatts of CCS in the UK by 2020, then not only have we cut our own CO2 omissions but we are making a real statement for the world as a whole.