by Professor Florian Doster, Institute of GeoEnergy Engineering, Heriot-Watt University
I started my PhD in 2007 so my scientific career is just two years short of the age of SCCS. Wow. Time flies! In this blog post, I’d like to reflect on the evolution of carbon capture and storage (CCS) over those 15 years from my personal perspective.
I did my PhD at an international doctoral training centre NUPUS in Stuttgart, Germany, which led to the establishment of InterPore, the international society for porous media. Porous media play an important role in CCS: porous materials are used to capture CO2 and used to store CO2 in the subsurface, as (most) rocks are porous.
Through NUPUS, I was closely following the growing technology of CCS early on in my career, despite working on a fundamental theory for multi-phase flow processes in porous media. From this time, I remember naive and cynical discussions, whether the technology would be a vehicle to kick the can down the road and keep on doing business as usual with respect to carbon footprints and climate change. Little did we know about the scale of the problem.
Anyway, in the 2000s climate change started to feature more widely on the agenda and I’m a curious physicist who likes to play with mathematical concepts while contributing to a better future.
Through CCS we want to ensure that CO2 is safely stored away for millennia. Obviously, we cannot explore millennia experimentally: we do not live that long and we need to take action now. We therefore rely on robust and efficient models to extrapolate small-scale (centimetres, hours) observations in experiments to large-scale (kilometres, millennia) operations.
The development of such models is exactly my cup of tea. So, CCS was an exciting opportunity, and I was lucky to secure a post-doctoral position at the carbon mitigation initiative in Princeton with Mike Celia and Jan Nordbotten in 2010 (Check out their excellent book on geological CO2 storage).
When looking for academic jobs in 2013, however, the situation was slightly different. The financial crisis from 2008 took its toll and economic recovery was a priority rather than mitigating climate change at scale and with costs. The shift of priorities did not completely terminate CCS but the enthusiasm (i.e. money spent on projects) took a substantial hit. It also did not help that the oil price dropped dramatically in 2015.
While some might be happy to see the oil and gas industry in crisis, a low oil price also means that there is little incentive to look for alternatives fuels. Further, the oil and gas industry is the only sector that has the knowledge and technology to implement CCS. In other words, their crisis also meant a lack of resources to invest in CCS.
To add insult to injury, the UK government broke the manifesto promise on a project to capture emissions from fossil fuel plants, days ahead of UN climate summit in Paris in 2015. Long story short, this was not a time for me to put all my eggs into the CCS basket. But, once again, I was lucky to join the Institute of Petroleum Engineering at Heriot Watt as a lecturer on a position that allowed me to continue working on CCS but not exclusively.
At this moment SCCS appeared on my horizon. Soon after I joined, Adrian Todd, one of SCCS’s founding fathers, retired and I stepped into his (intimidatingly huge) footsteps on the SCCS Directorate. While it was not as much of a culture shock for me as it was for Richard Stevenson and Richard Lo Bianco of SCCS, I still learned a lot from my directorate colleagues about the surface challenges – capture and transport – as well as about policies and society, highlighting the fascinating (and challenging) aspects of CCS.
In order to succeed with CCS, we cannot afford to think in silos and stick to boundaries; we all have to work together to succeed. It has been inspiring to be part of the vibrant and diverse SCCS partnership with its world-leading experts across Scotland and the whole CCS chain.
During the last years, the momentum on CCS has picked up again and projects are being launched across the globe. Not least, because climate change starts to be tangible. Unfortunately, it seems that we as humanity do need the explicit urgency to get our acts together. The change in momentum has even led to a change of focus and name of my home institute: the Institute of Petroleum Engineering is now the Institute of GeoEnergy Engineering with a brand new MSc programme on Subsurface Energy Systems that features CCS prominently.
But now, with COVID-19, we are facing another crisis. I very much hope that we will not waste further precious time and opt for a climate considerate recovery as opposed to a decade ago.
With this, I’d like to wish SCCS a Happy 15th Birthday and a prominent role in tackling the climate challenge. The foundations are there, thanks to the visionary founders 15 years ago and the diverse expertise across the team and the members.