Big push on CCS begins with trial at coal-fired plant'


The first Dutch trial to capture carbon dioxide from a power plant’s waste gas emissions has been launched in Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port. The facility opens as the Netherlands prepares to embark on a series of carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) projects that would see the country become a European hub for the technology. 

The pilot unit has been set up by CATO, a national 25 million euro public/private research partnership into clean fossil fuels, and is run by the Netherlands organisation for applied scientific research (TNO). Fitted to the side of a 1040MW coal-fired plant run by energy giant E.ON, it will extract 90 per cent of the carbon dioxide contained in 5 per cent of the plant’s flue gas waste stream - around 6 tonnes of carbon dioxide a day (1/3 MW). That’s smaller than some carbon capture pilots, but the plant is using new amino acid-based solvents that should reduce the energy needed to trap CO2. 

Carbon capture costs are currently 40-90 euros a tonne, dwarfing the expense of transport and underground storage. At least a quarter of a coal plant’s energy output goes into sustaining carbon capture. And when the traditional solvent (monoethanolamine) is rejuvenated after use by heating, in order to release its captured CO2 for subsequent storage, some of it evaporates away . Liquid ammonia, which is being tested in a Wisconsin-based carbon capture pilot launched in March 2008, must be chilled to prevent it evaporating, which uses extra energy. 

’Our aim is to halve the cost of capturing CO2, compared to amino alcohol solvents,’ explains TNO business development manager Lodewijk Nell. Amino acids, says Nell, don’t evaporate, are less corrosive, and are environmentally benign. The plant will also test new membranes to improve contact between gas and solvent. Its captured carbon will not be permanently stored, however. 

Scrubbing tower

The scrubbing tower for the capture trial is hoisted into place


Getting industrial

Absorbing CO2 from a power plant’s waste stream - or post-combustion capture - is a well-developed technology that could be retrofitted to existing plants, though it is expensive and not proved at industrial scale. In November 2007, the UK ruled that its competition for a large 300MW CCS demonstration plant (which will not be operational until around 2014), should be post-combustion. 

But the Netherlands also plans to extend into other carbon capture technologies more suited to new power plants, as Bert Stuij, manager of energy strategy and transition at Dutch government agency SenterNovem, explained at a conference held alongside the Rotterdam pilot launch. These include a gasification plant - where coal is not burnt but turned into a synthesis gas, from which carbon dioxide is extracted before the remaining hydrogen is used to produce electricity. And there will be an ’oxy fuel’ demonstration, where fossil fuels are burnt in nearly pure oxygen, producing a cleaner stream of carbon dioxide. These could eventually lead to large scale, integrated plants which both capture and store carbon dioxide. 

The Dutch government’s ambition, which also includes two carbon storage demonstrations, is matched in Europe only by Norway and the UK, says Nick Otter, director of technology and external affairs at French-based engineering firm Alstom. Though energy companies are investing in many CCS projects - including in countries where, unlike the Netherlands, there is little official support or funding - Otter fears that a series of isolated projects won’t get CCS to industrial scale fast enough. 

Ready or not

’The EU won’t meet its 2050 carbon reduction targets without CCS - but this won’t happen unless private and publicly-funded demonstrations are brought together under a European flagship programme,’ he says. In order to get CCS viable for all new power plants by 2020, he explains, the EU wants to encourage around 12 full-scale CCS demonstration projects by 2015. 

But this short time frame means there is a lot to be worked on at once, says Otter - not just capture and storage demonstrations and R&D, but also all the piping and infrastructure required to move CO2 into storage sites, and the regulations and financial assurances for investors who have to pay the huge capital costs - about 100 million euros for each demonstration plant. 

That effort has left many observers doubting that that CCS technology will be ready by 2020 - even though new coal-fired plants are often proposed as being ’carbon capture ready’. Far better, they say, to stop building new coal-fired power plants altogether, rather than lock in such a dirty technology in the hope of CCS. US climate researcher James Hansen, for instance, has urged Australia to stop building new coal-fired power plants until carbon capture and storage is fully demonstrated. 

But Dutch industry and government have a different vision. ’Rotterdam can be the CO2 hub of northwestern Europe,’ says Jan van den Heuvel, who is on the board of the Rotterdam climate initiative, which hopes to see the city halve its carbon emissions compared to 1990 levels by as early as 2025. As he points out, Rotterdam’s unique concentration of industry means there is plenty of wasted heat which could be used to drive energy-sucking CO2 capture systems. The port is also close to the North Sea, where carbon might be stored - and it is already experimenting with other novelties such as piping spare CO2 out to be used in greenhouses. ’Rotterdam will be the world showcase for capture projects,’ says van den Heuvel. ’If CCS cannot be done here, where could it be done?’ 

Richard Van Noorden