Tiny 'cages' could trap carbon dioxide and help stop climate change

A natural physical process has been identified that could play a key role in secure sub-seabed storage of carbon dioxide produced by fossil-fuelled power stations.

With EPSRC funding, a team at the Centre for Gas Hydrate Research, at Heriot-Watt University is investigating how, in some conditions, seawater and carbon dioxide could combine into ice-like compounds in which the water molecules form cavities that act as cages, trapping the carbon dioxide molecules.

In the unlikely event of carbon dioxide starting to leak into the sea from an under-seabed disposal site (e.g. a depleted North Sea oil or gas reservoir), this process could add a second line of defence preventing its escape.

This is because, as the carbon dioxide comes into contact with the seawater in the pores of seafloor sediments above it, the compounds (called carbon dioxide hydrates) would form. This would create a secondary seal, blocking sediment pores and cracks, and slowing or preventing leakage of the carbon dioxide.

Professor Bahman Tohidi is leading the project. "We want to identify the type of seabed locations where sediment, temperature and pressure are conducive to the formation of carbon dioxide hydrates," he says. "This data can then be used to help identify the securest locations for carbon dioxide storage and can aid in the development of methods for monitoring potential CO2 leakage. In the future, it may even be possible to manipulate the system to promote CO2 hydrate formation, extending the number of maximum-security sites that are available."

Combining engineering expertise with computer modelling and geology skills, the research team is examining exactly how and where hydrates form, and establishing the optimum conditions that enable this process to take place. Their work includes the use of an experimental facility to simulate conditions in different sub-seabed environments with different types of sediment, and to observe hydrate formation when carbon dioxide is introduced. They have also developed tiny 2-dimensional 'sediment micromodels' (layers of glass etched with acid to simulate sediments) to help explore how hydrate crystals grow at pore scale in seafloor sediments.

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(As part of National Science Week, EPSRC - the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council - is highlighting pioneering energy research to assist global efforts to combat climate change.)

Notes for Editors

National Science Week, which runs from 10th-19th March and is co-ordinated by the BA (the British Association for the Advancement of Science), aims to celebrate science and its importance to people's lives. Held every year, it provides an opportunity for people of all ages across the UK to take part in science, engineering and technology activities. 'Energy and Climate Change' has been selected as a key theme of this year's event. For more information visit: http://www.the-ba.net/Events/NationalScienceWeek/

The 3-year research project 'Can CO2 Hydrate Formation Act as a Safety Factor for Subsurface Storage of CO2?' is due to run until September 2008 and is receiving EPSRC funding of nearly 298,000.

Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuelled power stations are a major contributor to climate change. With fossil fuels predicted to remain essential to world energy supplies for several decades, finding alternatives to releasing these emissions into the atmosphere is an urgent priority. Capturing them and then storing them long-term in stable geological formations under the sea is one promising option.

As well as helping to offset the environmental impact of fossil-fuelled power generation, carbon capture and storage is seen as a key 'bridging' technology that could help the emergence of a hydrogen energy economy, which may eventually replace today's largely carbon-based energy system. This is because, although hydrogen is expected to be produced in the long term from carbon-free renewable energy sources (e.g. via hydrolysis), in the shorter term it will probably be produced mainly from fossil fuels, generating carbon dioxide as part of the production process. Professor Tohidi stresses that carbon storage is only a short to medium-term solution. He says: "It should not be considered a limitless option but rather a stop-gap means to facilitate a smooth transition from fossil fuels to clean energy resources."

As well as contributing to climate change, carbon dioxide could pose a serious threat to marine life if it escaped from sub-seabed storage in significant quantities.

Climate change is now accepted as a fact by an overwhelming majority of the global scientific community.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than 500 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website address for more information on EPSRC: www.epsrc.ac.uk/

For more information, contact:

Professor Bahman Tohidi, Institute of Petroleum Engineering, Heriot-Watt University, Tel: 0131 451 3672, E-mail: bahman.tohidi@pet.hw.ac.uk

Two images are available from the EPSRC press office (fig1 cavities.jpg and CO2 hydrate cell.jpg). Contact: Natasha Richardson, Tel: 01793 444404, E-mail: natasha.richardson@epsrc.ac.uk

Suggested captions:
'Fig1 cavities.jpg': The researchers are investigating how hydrates, ice-like crystalline compounds, could help with CO2 disposal. Within the hydrate structure water molecules form cage-like cavities which trap molecules of CO2.
'CO2 hydrate cell.jpg': To understand their properties researchers are studying how hydrates grow in sediment pore space at the scale of individual crystals. Follow-up work will be done on full-size sediment cores.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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