How digitalisation is unlocking carbon capture possibilities
Global energy-related CO2 emissions increased in 2022 by 0.9%, or 321 million tonnes, reaching a new high of more than 36.8 billion tonnes, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) latest analysis. Reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases are required, alongside the scaled use of carbon reduction technologies, if temperatures are to be prevented from surpassing the Paris-set target of a 1.5° C increase from pre-industrial levels.
That was among the headline findings of the recent Sixth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific consensus document that assesses what the world knows now about climate change and what needs to be done to counter it.
In their headline statements, the authors say: “If warming exceeds a specified level such as 1.5°C, it could gradually be reduced again by achieving and sustaining net negative global CO2 emissions. This would require additional deployment of carbon dioxide removal".
In line with this, interest in technologies for carbon removal and reduction is growing. Globally, the number of carbon capture projects has exploded, with 35 commercial installations in operation or under construction, and more than 200 others in development. Driving much of that investment is the long-term goal of carbon capture technologies to remove millions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere.
Broadly speaking, carbon capture systems work in one of two ways: point-source systems, which remove CO2 from industrial flue gases before it enters the atmosphere; and direct air capture (DAC) systems, which move large volumes of air through removal systems, pulling CO2 directly from the atmosphere.
Once captured, the CO2 can be compressed and transported by pipeline, ship, rail or truck to other locations for a wide range of uses, called carbon capture and utilisation (CCU), or injected into underground storage sites, called carbon capture and storage (CCS).
According to estimates, the projects which have already been announced have the potential capacity to eventually remove 550 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year, with an annual value of more than US$50 billion.
Why carbon capture and removal projects are attracting investment
The uptick in CCUS (carbon capture, utilisation and storage) projects has attracted government investment. In March, the UK government unveiled a US$25bn fund to invest in CCUS technology.
The same month, the US government announced US$6bn in funding for projects accelerating decarbonisation in energy-intensive industries – part of the Department of Energy’s Earthshots scheme to advance carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere through technological innovation, including DAC. The aim of the Carbon Negative Shot element of this programme is to make removing CO2 from the atmosphere viable at scale at less than US$100 per tonne, in line with the US government’s ambition to achieve net-zero by 2050.
Technological innovation is stimulating this interest, having made carbon capture systems more efficient. Leveraging process modelling software, engineers have been able to connect solar power with DAC systems, for instance. Concurrent engineering modelling software, meanwhile, is enabling businesses to evaluate process alternations and simulate scale-up to better understand trade-offs between capital and operating costs, to select designs, and to implement solutions at pace.
While those innovations have been critical to making carbon capture a viable sustainability solution, they would not have been possible without the use of digital technology to optimise the design and operation of capture systems.
To gain the fullest picture of how different carbon capture systems work, Technology Center Mongstad has been one of the trailblazers. A Norway-based testing and innovation centre, it has developed an integrated data collection and modelling system to evaluate the performance of different technologies and solvents used to capture or absorb carbon, and how they can be scaled up. Such systems can provide invaluable insights into the degradation of solvents, their reclamation, along with emission abatement options, control of process temperatures and help target the best points in the emissions stream to remove carbon.
Meanwhile, Canada-based Carbon Engineering and Carbon Capture, Inc. are using AspenTech software to evaluate thousands of CO2 capture options, then simulating scale-up to understand trade-offs between capital and operating costs.
The importance of subsurface science and engineering capabilities
It is clear digital technology and optimisation have a game-changing role to play in accelerating the commercialisation of carbon capture technology, improving its economics, and helping asset-intensive businesses reduce carbon emissions.
For these firms to reach their net-zero targets, innovation in carbon capture and the adoption of digitalisation need to advance quickly. From evaluating possible storage sites to developing effective execution plans, digital technologies allow companies to optimise all stages of a project and to monitor carbon stored underground.
Storing captured carbon below the Earth’s surface comes with challenges, ranging from the assessment of geologic reservoirs to ensuring permanent and safe storage. Subsurface science and engineering (SSE) technology is critical in this field. It enables organisations to gain an accurate evaluation of the storage capacity of each site, along with its containment integrity. Armed with these insights, organisations can optimise their injection of captured CO2 into the reservoir, ensuring success during the project’s lifetime. Modelling capabilities enable the minimisation of costs.
Fast forward to a positive future
Digitalisation remains key for rapidly improving economics, scale and speed of implementation of carbon capture, carbon storage and utilisation, and carbon storage monitoring. As the technology is increasingly retrofitted in existing power and industrial plants, it seems certain that CCUS will play a key role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the future, alongside other technologies like clean electrification, hydrogen and sustainable bioresources.
As the world continues to find new ways to manage the effects of climate change, CCUS will prove to be an important tool in that fight. It will enable companies to meet the dual challenge of increased demand from a growing global middle-class, alongside stringent governmental and investor requirements for reduced greenhouse emissions, energy use and waste. Global demand for energy is predicted to rise 50% by 2050, for example. Ultimately, regardless of where companies are in the journey to net-zero carbon, it is important to partner with technology leaders with the expertise to help achieve critical sustainability goals, while driving operational excellence.
Antonio Pietri is the President and CEO of Aspen Technology