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How to Bury a Climate Bomb

In August 2011, the Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) and its partners began drilling a well into the layer of soft sandstone located a mile beneath its headquarters in Decatur, Illinois. This was unusual in two respects. First, ADM isn’t an energy concern–it is the world’s largest agricultural commodities company. Second, the well wasn’t meant to extract oil or gas, but to inject carbon dioxide back into the ground.

A little more than a year later, 317,000 tons of CO2 had been successfully deposited in the porous sandstone, trapped beneath a layer of shale. The goal: bring that figure up to 1m tons per year before the pilot project concludes in 2015.

The Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Sequestration project is one of the most ambitious U.S. attempts at carbon capture and storage (CCS), the umbrella term for a suite of technologies designed to capture greenhouse gases before they escape into the atmosphere and safely sequester them in geological deposits below the ground or under the seabed.

With fossil fuels projected to supply three-quarters of global energy until as late as 2035, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has declared CCS “a critical component” of any strategy for tackling climate change, contributing to one-sixth of reductions of all CO2 emissions by 2050. For now, though, the technology remains in the prototype stage.

 

Decatur was one of the first such prototypes when the project was announced in 2009. The U.S. Department of Energy has contributed $141.5 million, more than two-thirds of its total cost, with ADM and its partners covering the rest. The selection of Decatur and ADM (winner in a competitive process) is particularly interesting in two respects.

First: the nature of the carbon dioxide being produced. In this case, the CO2 is the result of converting corn into ethanol fuel rather than from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity. This is important because the IEA’s projections for CCS call for nearly half of all captured CO2 to come from industrial applications.

Second: the project’s location. The Mount Simon Sandstone beneath Decatur extends throughout the 60,000 square mile Illinois Basin, which includes more than 100 fossil-fuel-burning power plants—one of the highest geographic concentrations in the U.S. Sequestered gas behaves differently depending on local geography, thus there are limits to the lessons from overseas projects that can be applied in the U.S. Observations from Decatur, however, are immediately applicable. Until the project concludes in September 2015, those observations can be summed up as: so far, so good.

This piece first appeared on GE Look ahead.

How to Bury a Climate Bomb was originally published on Ideas Lab

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