International Sulcis CCS Summer School, July, Italy

I spent last week in one of the Europe’s prettiest coal-mining regions, attending and presenting at the 3rd annual CCS summer school to be held by Clean Coal Centre members Sotacarbo at their Sardinian research centre. Besides myself and Geoff Morrison from the CCC, this year the event managed to bring in a particularly high quality and international set of speakers, with a programme of talks and visits that were as interesting for me as for the students.

The theme of the five days of the school progressed logically through a general introduction to world energy and climate change issues, capture technologies, transport and utilisation, storage research, and finally to the challenges faced by large-scale CCS projects. The first day featured an insightful talk from Volker Krey, a lead author on the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, highlighting the potential roles for CCS in the report’s long-term decarbonisation plans to 2100. The ability to draw on CCS in the future was shown to have the most significant impact on reducing the cost of CO¬2 mitigation, due to its fuel versatility, applicability to industry as well as power generation, and potential for  achieving the negative CO2 emissions which may very likely become necessary.

Given my current research focus is on the future of carbon capture technologies, I was particularly interested in the second day’s talk from MarK Ackiewicz of the US Department of Energy on advanced carbon capture technologies. The far-sighted energy research programme of the US is really leading the way in this field, with countless novel capture technologies being investigated at all levels of development in a drive to dramatically reduce the cost and raise the efficiency of CCS plant. In particular, researchers are trying to apply new, hi-tech materials technologies such as additive manufacturing to developing high-performance membranes, sorbents, and more efficient absorber structures which can lead to smaller, lower-cost equipment.

For the storage-focussed day, besides updates on the extensive local  work to characterise the storage potential in south-west Sardinia, the students were also fortunate to hear from the University of Illinois’ Sally Greenberg, who led the Decatur project – a large-scale CO2 storage and monitoring test in the US. Taking CO2 from a bioethanol plant, 1 Mt were injected into the Mt Simon saline aquifer formation over three years, accompanied by an extensive monitoring and geological characterisation programme. This project has paved the way for a larger ethanol facility in the region to begin injecting 1 Mt/yr later this year.

Short afternoon sessions on each day were often devoted to regional and Italian work on CCS research being conducted by Sotacarbo, the local university at Cagliari, and the national energy research institute ENEA, as well as visits to the Sotacarbo’s labs and pilot plant facilities. Sotacarbo are currently involved with a host of energy research projects, including coal and biomass gasification and hydrogen production, pre- and post-combustion capture, work to develop a pilot-scale capture plant in the region, and characterisation of the regional storage potential. While the larger of the two fixed-bed gasifiers on site (700 kg/hr) is used primarily to investigate gasification properties of different fuels, a smaller unit is connected to a series of syngas treatment steps for precombustion capture, including hot desulphurisation and water gas shift and a solvent reactor for CO2 removal. As I mentioned after last year’s summer school, there is an iniative to develop a pilot-scale capture plant of around 50 MWt close at the site of an existing coal plant nearby, potentially leading to a larger plant and CO2 storage in the coal seam or a saline aquifer.

For the students, the remainder of the afternoons was set aside for group projects to develop a series of ‘wikis’ on various aspects of CCS technologies, leaving some time for the visiting speakers to explore the beautiful region or head for the beach. Unsurprisingly, there is some great seafood to be had in Sardinia, and it took pride of place for Thursday evening’s social dinner at an old local restaurant (not marred too much by my early morning talk the following morning).

This summer school offers a great introduction to CCS, as well as providing a window on a great deal of current, cutting-edge research, and any students in the field should think about applying for next year’s event.