Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS): what, why, how?

CCUS is tipped to be a major technology in 2050. What is it, why is it needed and how does it work?

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By Jess Ralston


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How does it work?

Capturing CO2

Carbon dioxide is one of many gases in the exhaust streams of power stations and industrial processes. To be used or stored, it first needs to be separated. This can be done in a number of ways, such as passing the exhaust fumes through solvents or across catalysts and other substances that selectively bind to CO2.

One way to strip the carbon out is through chemical absorption.

This is when waste gases are passed through solvents like ammonia, which absorb the CO2 in a chemical reaction. This absorption is then reversed by blasting the ammonia with high temperature steam, releasing the purified CO2. This type of capture can be retrofitted onto existing buildings. This meakes it the most popular CCUS technology trialled to date.

Another way to strip out CO2 is by oxyfuel combustion.

This is when the fossil fuels are burned (e.g. during power generation) in a purer mixture of air. This mix contains just oxygen and carbon dioxide, with the nitrogen removed. Burning the fuel in purer air means that the exhaust gases are more concentrated with CO2, making it easier to capture and store the waste gases after burning.

Oxyfuel combustion is slightly simpler than chemical absorption as no solvent is required. The unit that carries out this process is also relatively small. This means there is a possibility of retrofit to an existing plant with some alterations.

CCUS will be useful in decarbonising industries that are likely to have residual emissions to 2050. Obvious examples are heavy industries like steel making and power generation that uses natural gas or biomass. CCUS capture rates are not 100% efficient, so there will still be some residual emissions.

Today, around 5kg of CO2 can be captured per person per year across the world, to a total of around 39.5 million tonnes. Yet, global CO2 emissions are around 33 billion tonnes. So a significant gap remains. Although the current planned pipeline will double the amount that can be captured per person, a much greater scale up is needed – around a thousand times the current level per person – to sequester the global average person’s carbon emissions of five tonnes (5000kgs) per year.

Circle showing co2 emissions globally, and smaller circle showing carbon captured by ccus

Transporting and using CO2

Transporting CO2

Before it can be used or stored, captured CO2 must be transported, usually via pipelines. For this, it is compressed into a liquid state and can then be moved through the pipelines, by ships or in road tankers.

Sharing infrastructure such as pipelines between multiple emissions sources, creating ‘industrial clusters’, is becoming increasingly attractive. Clustering can combine emissions from power stations and industry into a single pipeline, cutting costs and providing the scale needed to make CCUS projects viable.

CO2 usage

Captured CO2 can be used to make a multitude of materials. It can be converted to building materials such as concrete (mineralisation), used to make plastics via polymerisation as a feedstock for microalgae that is converted to biofuels, among others.

These processes can be very energy intensive. The additional cost of using CO2, as well as the waste produced in making new materials, can impact the viability of CCU projects.

CO2 can also be used directly in commercial processes such as food and drink, horticulture and in enhanced oil recovery. In food and drink, CO2 can be used to carbonate drinks, freeze and chill food and in packaging. In horticulture, it can be added to greenhouses to enhance the production of crops that use CO2 in photosynthesis.

The main use for CO2 today is enhanced oil recovery, a process to increase the maximum amount of oil and gas that can be extracted from a site. By injecting CO2 into the reservoir, more hydrocarbons are forced out than would be otherwise. The additional revenue of these fuels imparts a value on the CO2 used to extract them; to compete other uses of CO2 will also need to produce economic value.

CCUS facilities Europe
Overview of existing and planned CCUS facilities in Europe, showing the UK currently has the most, followed by the Netherlands. Source: IOGP.

Storing CO2

Storing captured CO2 – geologically, minerally or in oceans – prevents it from entering the atmosphere and contributing to climate change.

Geological storage, in sedimentary rocks in old oil and gas fields or saline formations (porous rocks), can include re-using existing oil and gas infrastructure. Europe has several areas that have significant storage capacity potential, such as Spain (up to 14 GtCO2) and Norway (134 GtCO2).

One often-cited concern around geological storage is that CO2 will leak out over time. However, studies have found this is unlikely, stating that even if there is a 50% probability of 0.0008% leakage per year, if ‘well-regulated’ over 98% of the stored CO2 would remain in the subsurface for over 10,000 years. For this reason, geological storage is the most credible option CO2 examined to date.

Ocean storage is another option. While technically possible, injecting CO2 into the ocean and either letting it diffuse or trapping it in a specific location, would lead to the formation of carbonic acid, a direct cause of ocean acidification. For this reason it is not seen as a credible means of storing CO2.

Mineral storage is also used. this is where CO2 is chemically bound to calcium and magnesium-rich rocks, holding it in place at specific sites. As calcium and magnesium are stable and abundant, the CO2 will not be released into the atmosphere. However, this reaction can be slow under normal temperatures and so would ned to be heated (using more energy) to increase the speed, or minerals would have to be pre-treated.

CCUS in the UK

The UK has had targets for CCUS for many years.

For example, the 2003 Energy White Paper aimed to develop large scale CCUS projects. Competitions to support CCUS demonstrations were carried out throughout the 2000s and 2010s.

In the Clean Growth Strategy in 2017, the Government committed to demonstrating ‘international leadership in CCUS’ and investing up to £100 million in the technology. This was backed by a CCUS action plan and CCUS cost challenge taskforce in the years that followed, all aiming to help reduce costs and accelerate large scale roll out.

More recently, investment into CCUS has been re-pledged; up to £1bn was announced in the PM’s 10-point-plan for supporting four industrial clusters to decarbonise using CCUS by 2030, up from the previous target of ‘one low-carbon cluster by 2030’ that was announced in 2019. This aims to support a target of capturing 10MtCO2 each year by 2030, the equivalent of four million car’s annual emissions.

Many projects in these areas are underway, such as Net Zero Teesside, HyNet and Acron CCS in Scotland. The Government have estimated that its £1bn investment in CCUS could support 50,000 jobs by 2030.

Jobs and GVA for Net Zero Teesside.
Indirect and induced economic impacts of the Net Zero Teesside project include over 15,000 jobs in induced employment and over £900m induced GVA in 2025. Source: Net Zero Teesside, Vivid Economics.
Zero Carbon Humber
The CCUS process. Source: Zero Carbon Humber, Drax group.

In the UK, the captured CO2 could be stored in existing infrastructure such as the 300 platforms and 1000 pipelines that are found in the North and East Irish Seas. The Energy Technologies Institute estimate that the UK has ‘the CO2 storage capacity to meet its needs out to 2050 and beyond’ and indicated that ‘there are no technical barriers’ to storing CO2 offshore.

Potential abatement

A large number of scenarios to net zero emissions include significant CCUS use. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has stated that 100Mt CO2e will need to be captured per year in 2050 in the UK. Close to 60% of this will be via engineered greenhouse gas removals (58MtCO2/yr).

Emissions captured by CCUS in 2050.
Estimated emissions needed to be captured by CCUS under the ‘Balanced Pathway’ to 2050. Source: CCC 6th Carbon Budget.

CCS globally

Globally, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has indicated that as CCUS ‘is the only group of technologies that contributes both to reducing emissions in key sectors directly and to removing CO2 to balance emissions that are challenging to avoid’, the technology is ‘a critical part of “net” zero goals.'

As countries are unlikely to be able to meet their net zero goals without abatement in tricky-to-tackle areas, investment in CCUS has rocketed in recent years. From only 18 large scale CCS facilities in operation around the world (in six countries) in 2018, there have been over 30 commercial facilities announced in the last three years.

These new plants have been deployed across the continents, including Australia, Brazil, Canada and Saudi Arabia. However, in most locations the CO2 the projects are commissioned purely for enhanced oil recovery.

Combined, these CCUS projects have received an estimated investment of around $27bn and have the potential to double the amount of CO2 captured globally to around 80MtCO2.

Although much below where the world needs to be to limit global warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century, this rapid scaling up is likely to continue to 2050 and beyond, with the abatement levels growing as the technology gets cheaper and more readily available.