A new large-scale technology has launched in Decatur, Illinois that, by combining together corn-based fuels with the burial of carbon dioxide deep underground, could potentially result in the active removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
It’s an objective described as crucial by scientists hoping to control the planet’s warming.
The facility operated by ethanol giant Archer Daniels Midland, dubbed the Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture Project, arrives at a time of uncertainty for the U.S. and global biofuels industry. It faces growing competition from electric vehicles, and continuing struggles to move beyond so-called “first generation” feedstocks like corn, which can create conflicts with food supplies.
Some critics have also questioned the technology — dubbed “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage,” or BECCS — that marries together plants that pull carbon from the air as they grow, and industrial applications that process or consume those plants to generate energy, but also capture some of the resulting carbon and stow it within the Earth.
The ADM plant could still be quite significant from a global climate perspective. Computer models that seek to chart our planet’s energy and climate future have leaned heavily on BECCS as a way to power future transportation and electricity systems while nonetheless keeping the planet’s warming below the dangerous level of 2 degrees Celsius.
“This is the first large scale project in the world on biofuels, and it takes us down the road towards negative emissions, which is the exciting part,” said Jeff Erikson, director of the Global CCS Institute. (The other key BECCS idea — power plants that burn wood for electricity and then capture the emissions — does not exist at a large scale, Erikson said.)
Yet the climate benefits of driving cars with corn-based ethanol instead of fossil fuels remain contested — even in combination with the CCS technology.
“Because CCS benefits are independent, it should not be selectively used to dress up the benefits of one carbon emitting fuel versus another,” said Timothy Searchinger, a critic of biofuels with the World Resources Institute, in a statement. “Coal, gasoline, natural gas and bioenergy are precisely as good or as bad relative to each other as they are regardless of CCS.”
The march towards launch of the Illinois project has been a remarkably quiet one thus far. The local Decatur Herald & Review noted in December that a local Environmental Protection Agency hearing to review ADM’s plans went off “with nobody showing up to submit comments about changes to the permit.”
The Decatur project is expected to store 1.1 million tons of carbon dioxide per year for five years in sandstone layers a mile and a half underground, for a total storage of over 5 million tons. According to materials provided by ADM, the geological formation involved, the Mt. Simon Sandstone, has “the capacity to store billions of tons of CO2.”
The current ADM project builds on a prior, smaller scale project in Illinois that over three years stored about a million tons of CO2, and tested the sustainability of the geological sequestration of carbon dioxide in sandstone, says Sallie Greenberg, a researcher with the Illinois State Geological Survey who has collaborated on both projects.
“The significance of this is it is an upscale, more industrial scale injection on the order of a million tons of carbon dioxide per year, so this is a big step forward in terms of the commercialization of carbon capture and storage,” said Greenberg.
At the Decatur plant, carbon dioxide is stripped out of the fermentation process in which corn is converted to ethanol — which yields an almost perfectly pure stream of carbon dioxide gas. That gas is then converted to “supercritical,” fluid form and piped underground.
“The technology that we are using in Decatur can be a model for reducing industrial carbon emissions around the world,” said ADM’s chief technology officer, Todd Werpy, in a press statement Friday.
Unlike in some other CCS projects, the carbon dioxide will not be used for the purposes of so-called “enhanced oil recovery” from depleted oil fields, Greenberg said. This may add to the economic viability of CCS technology, but has drawn criticism because it promotes further use of fossil fuels.
The Energy Department praised the initiative. “Today’s announcement marks a major step forward for the advancement of industrial carbon capture and storage technologies,” said Doug Hollett, Acting Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy. That’s the division of the department that invested $ 141 million into ADM’s project as part of President Obama’s economic stimulus bill in 2009.
Yet despite campaigning about the importance of “clean coal” and even saying it is “committed to clean coal technology” on the White House website, the Trump administration is aiming to slash research funding for these kinds of technologies.
An OMB budget document sent to Capitol Hill last month, singled out the Energy Department’s Fossil Energy Research and Development for a more than 50 percent budget cut for the remainder of this year. It said the program could manage the cuts through “a reduction in the number of R&D grant awards.”
In addition to the Archer Daniels Midland project, one other major CCS facility opened in the U.S. this year — the Petra Nova plant in Texas, which captured carbon dioxide from the process of burning coal for electricity and then uses the stream of the gas for enhanced oil recovery. It also received Energy Department funding.
Greenberg said it isn’t clear yet whether the entire process occurring in Illinois will be proven to be carbon negative — to pull a net amount of carbon out of the air and store it beneath the ground.
“There are lot of researchers who are looking at life cycle analysis, and running those numbers, to make the case of whether it’s net negative,” she said. “I think it’s probably about as close as you’re going to get. But I think, really, for an answer to that, stay tuned, that’s one of the research questions that we are all looking at quite closely.”