Research into carbon capture, utilization and storage, or CCUS, is important because there is an effect on everything that we do. We live in such a highly connected world that we cannot assume that what we’re doing is on an island and we are just in our little sphere. And this is something that has to be done. It is not an option. It is a necessity.
My name is Manika Prasad. I’m a professor of geophysics. I’m also director of the Mines CCUS Innovation Center at the Colorado School of Mines.
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To start, what’s the significance of carbon and CO2, and what role, or should I say, “roles,” of CCUS?
Okay, so the reason why CO2 is important is because it forms as a byproduct of a lot of processes in nature. And that makes it a natural cyclic process. If we are not changing anything, CO2 cycles through the atmosphere, we ingest it, we use it, we exhale it, we emit it. And so it cycles around. But with industrial processes, many of those processes emit CO2. And the biggest problem is CO2, carbon dioxide, and methane. Both of them contain carbon. And that’s why we call it carbon sequestration, because we’re looking at reducing these gases. And they’re called greenhouse gases because they absorb and retain heat. And as the situation becomes more known, as people see the amount of carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere over a long period of time, we find that the increase has been very large and that’s where the efforts are to say, “Okay, we can make our processes more efficient—we can capture at the source.” So that’s where all of the CCUS comes in to say, “We can have carbon avoidance. We can have carbon mitigation. Or we can have carbon storage and utilization.” All of these are where we are looking at processes to say, “Which process lends itself to becoming more efficient?” And by being more efficient, you save money, and that’s a big part of the equation—you have to finance it somehow—so you make the process more efficient, and you reduce also the cost of the back end where you don’t have to spend on mitigating the effects because you take care of it on the production side.
And this is a global effort to mitigate greenhouse gases. I mean, the United States wants to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases by 50 percent in the decade.
Is that an actual reality?
Let me answer it with an analogy. And that’s something that is key to everything we do, right? If we aim for the roof, we’ll hit the windows, but if we aim for the stars, we’ll hit the roof. So we set ambitious goals. And I think that has to be set. If we can guarantee meeting the goals, then they were not ambitious to start with. So the analogy I’d like to give is, when we run at a place, we know we’ll reach the goal, that’s not the problem. The problem is, we want to win, but we’re never sure in a race that we will win. But that doesn’t stop us from competing. Right?
What sort of CCUS research is going on at Mines and beyond? I’m assuming that there are a lot of different avenues to go down.
Yes, indeed. There are many different aspects of CCUS research at Mines, and I can give you an example of not everything that’s happening at Mines but just an example. We are designing, for example, membranes to separate carbon dioxide and methane gas mixtures. There are materials called metal oxide frameworks—MOFs—and these are very interesting because they have very high surface areas. And so if you can train the surfaces to selectively capture certain gases, in this case carbon dioxide, then you have a very high capacity and very highly cost-effective capture methods.
We have a group who’s investigating cyanobacteria that can capture carbon dioxide and methane. When you capture carbon dioxide, you want to transport it so that it can be used in a certain place. We need safe transport methods. So there is one group that’s looking at transportation safety of gas hydrates, capturing as well.
The other part is to use carbon dioxide for synthesizing materials. So there is a group that’s looking at converting CO2 into high-value chemicals and fuels and to synthesize methane using carbon dioxide and feedstock water. For example, concrete, cement production, generates a large amount of CO2, and so there is a research going on that says, “Well, if we were to use an engineered char, which is a by-product of burning, if we were to use engineered char as a concrete additive, then that not only reduces the cost, but also decreases emissions by 50 percent.”
In all of this, we need to bear in mind that whatever we do has an impact on people, whether it is to generate CO2 and have increased amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere or to develop mitigation solutions to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. There is an effort there to make sure that we understand the societal implications of what we do.
To wrap things up, you’ve been busy leading the charge on developing a CCUS certificate program at Mines.
Right. That was an amazing effort. I don’t know how many. I’ve lost count of how many faculty are involved in it, but if there was overwhelming response from colleagues who said, “Yes, indeed, we will do this, and here’s what we can do.” And that’s because we want people to know why they’re doing certain things and what is it going to cost? What is the policy around it? What is sustainability? And what is climate equity? How does climate affect people, both geographically, as well as on a financial basis, on a living basis. So CCUS is taught as… mostly people learn on the job. There is no program that offers CCUS in a way that we’ve developed this certificate.
Is it just for students enrolled at Mines?
No. This is open to the public. This is a fully online course. Anyone can come in. We just warn people that we will be using certain technical scientific terms, but we provide help so that folks who are coming from a non-natural-science background, they can brush up on that part. Or people like me who are coming from a natural science background, I can read up, what does it mean to say value chain? What is the economy? How do you balance your budget? I can’t even balance my checkbook. So how do you do that? So that’s the part which we have enough help for people who need more background information, but it’s open for anyone who is interested. We hope that there are people coming in from the industry, from actual practice who are working on this problem, who come in to say, “I need more foundation to explain what’s going on.” So this is really exciting to have a program which is new, which is not available anywhere, which brings together not only the scientific technical part but also puts in the economics aspects as well as sustainability goals.
The biggest challenge in science is to ask the right question. If you have the right question, you have solved half the problem. And that’s the part which is critical. And oftentimes, the question will come to you when you’re listening to something very different. It’s just that, that gives you the spark to say, “Oh, okay. Maybe we should look at what we’re doing slightly differently. So that’s the part which is key.
To learn more about Mines’ online graduate certificate in carbon capture, utilization and storage, visit online.mines.edu/ccus.
Thanks for listening to The Conveyor. To learn more about how Colorado School of Mines is solving some of the world’s biggest engineering and scientific challenges, visit mines.edu and then join us back here on our next episode.
This episode of The Conveyor was produced by Ashley Spurgeon and was hosted and edited by Dannon Cox.
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The Conveyor brings listeners insights into the latest research, new discoveries and world-changing ideas from Colorado School of Mines.
The viewpoints and opinions expressed by featured guests do not necessarily represent those of Colorado School of Mines.