Pumping Carbon Beneath the Earth
German Test Facility to Start CO2 Sequestration
A power plant just outside of Berlin is expected to test carbon sequestration for the first time this week. The technology, which would see coal-fired power plants pumping CO2 underground, could help reverse climate change. But it could also be dangerous.
For the first time ever in continental Europe, carbon dioxide is set to be pumped underground. Scientists working in the town of Ketzin, just outside of Berlin, want to begin pumping quantities of the greenhouse gas underground this week in order to determine whether it can be stored safely in sandstone deposits during a test phase that will continue through 2009.
Similar projects are underway in Canada, Australia and off the coast of Norway. Scientists are hoping that the efforts to store climate-killer CO2 gases underground will help to reduce emissions of the gases responsible for global warming in the future. Still, scientists are warning against excess optimism.
"Even if it turns out that it works, we will still need to continue looking for alternative energy sources," said the director of the project, Frank Schilling of the German Research Center for Geosciences (GFZ) in Potsdam, which is participating in the project. One reason is that the technology won't be ready for the market until 2020 at the very latest. Nor is it certain if the gas can be kept from seeping out of its underground storage area. Capturing carbon dioxide emission from coal-fired power plants and pumping it into underground storage also takes energy. Fully 20 percent more coal would be required to produce the same amount of energy.
Still, energy utilities around the world have been promoting the development of so-called carbon capture and storage, arguing that they should be allowed to construct new coal-fired power plants because in the future they will be able to sequester the CO2 deep beneath the earth. Companies are spending billions to develop the technology.
The German carbon sequestration facility is being built by European energy giant Vattenfall in Ketzin. If it is deemed safe and effective, it could be hooked up to a nearby Vattenfall coal power plant. But the connected sites will only generate a relatively modest amount of electricity -- about that created by a large wind farm.
The CO2 will be pumped about 800 meters (2,600 feet) below the earth's surface into a saline aquifer with porous sandstone. There have been concerns about the safety of the facility. The list of open questions is long -- with worries about leakage a priority. Should CO2 work its way back to the surface, concentration at leak points could be deadly. Should CO2 make up just 8 percent of air volume, it is deadly.