The Energy Institute funded a proposal co-written by the Gulf Coast Carbon Center (GCCC) to find out how to implement and assure long-term underground geological storage of carbon dioxide (CO2) at the technical, legal, policy, business, and community level. The University of Texas at Austin (UT) cross-disciplinary project is co-led by Susan Hovorka of the Bureau of Economic Geology’s GCCC and LeeAnn Kahlor of the Moody College of Communication. Other team members are from the Cockrell School of Engineering, the School of Law, and the McCombs School of Business.

The Energy Institute put out the call for proposals titled, Fueling a Sustainable Energy Transition. More than 30 applications were submitted from 127 researchers and GCCC’s project was 1 of 11 projects awarded. The goal is to find solutions to provide affordable and reliable energy in the world’s movement towards sustainable energy.

Carbon storage is long-term

One method to reduce atmospheric emissions of CO2 is carbon capture and storage (CCS). Fossil fuel combustion with the release of the greenhouse gas CO2 is one part of the problem. In addition, many industrial processes, like chemical, cement, and steel manufacturing, emit CO2 yet remain without a viable mitigation option besides CCS. Many sustainable technologies, such as renewable energy generation, rely on these industrial processes.

To achieve the needed reduction in emissions, geological storage must be effective in permanently retaining CO2 that’s injected into the subsurface. How do we provide assurance that the project is effective?

The project collaborators approach this question from a variety of angles, according to their expertise. Under the proposal titled “Assuring Long-term Storage of Captured CO2: Technical-Legal-Policy-Business Models,” the team proposes to study three strands they expect will help provide needed confidence and support large-scale implementation.

While the technologies used in geologic storage are mature and provide high technical confidence that stored CO2 is trapped in the deep subsurface over long periods, translating this into certainty that can be used to underpin a large business investment is a new challenge. Interest in investment is growing, but the needed confidence remains poor.

Geoscientists use novel techniques to confirm their predictions

Understanding the multitude of ways that CO2 and the underground brine water interact within pore spaces in rocks is needed to predict the long-term consequence of that interaction. Pore-scale fluid interactions that trap CO2 have been modeled at GCCC previously but the new project will build pore-scale micromodels to experimentally validate the predicted interactions. Upscaling this to a level relevant to the total CO2 injected into an underground rock will determine how the fluid movement stalls overtime underground and be critical to gaining confidence in storage permanence. These experiments and computer modeling will be compared to projects at field sites so that scientists will be able to better predict the stabilization of CO2 underground.

Action requires coordination of business, policy, and regulation

If CCS is to move in a direction that tackles significant national or global emissions, then risk will transfer from the public (everyone is affected by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) to the private, corporate environment (emitters taking action to store their greenhouse gases). Precedent and mechanisms for creating legal and policy frameworks to support long-term storage will be assessed. Translating the geotechnical language to appropriate commercial and regulatory communications will help provide financial assurance and risk avoidance to manage long-term liability for storage.

Everything depends on effective communication

The scientific justification for CCS is to combat the greenhouse gas CO2 from entering the atmosphere where it contributes to climate change. At present, many public stakeholders in areas where CCS is likely to be deployed—such as Texas—are not aware of CCS nor its potential to mitigate climate change. Because large-scale CCS implementation will require public support, it is imperative that the technology’s mitigation potential be recognized by public stakeholders. Therefore, the social scientists in the project will employ survey methods with a probability based sampling strategy to test a variety of messages and phrases in hopes of making the connection between climate change, CO2, and CCS clear and apparent. This work will help improve communication efforts aimed at building awareness of longterm storage.

“We know a fair amount already. For example, public awareness of CCS is low, awareness of the benefits leads to more support,” project co-lead Lee Ann Kahlor said. “But we also know that, at least in Texas, people aren’t aware that CCS is a way to mitigate climate change. So that is our goal – to make that connection clear. On the surface, it sounds really simple. But rest assured, if it was simple we wouldn’t need to be doing this work.”

Transferring confidence to the whole energy ecosystem

By approaching the topic from a variety of angles, UT scientists will help answer one of the longest standing and complicated issues in CCS: confidence in long-term geological storage.

The Energy Institute promotes research at UT that makes a global impact on the future of energy.

Other projects awarded include sustainable energy topics such as nextgen battery packs, solar-powered water purification, electricity infrastructure for extreme weather, predicting ecosystem carbon capture, optimizing carbon capture processes, and managing climate change and land-use planning in urban areas, among others.

Read UT’s coverage of all award recipients and their projects here: