Capturing CO2, along with the imagination of young scientists

Technologies being developed at Masdar Institute might help achieve the 2 per cent carbon emission reduction target, writes Mohammed Olfi

Masdar in Abu Dhabi is at the forefront of research.  (Wam)
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Though many UAE residents have been enjoying cool temperatures lately, there is no denying that the Earth is heating up.

This warming, which has increased average global temperatures by 1°C this past year, is due largely to power plants burning fossil fuels, pumping out harmful, heat-trapping greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2).

Scientists have cautioned that a warming of 2°C will cause catastrophic changes to the environment. To avoid this, CO2 emissions must be cut drastically.

Simply and immediately doing away with fossil fuels, however, is not realistic. Humanity has a huge need for affordable energy that renewable sources cannot yet meet. But scientists are investigating ways to use those fuels without releasing CO2 from their combustion into the atmosphere. One approach which may be pivotal in the fight against climate change is a technology known as carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), which captures the CO2 emitted by fossil fuel-burning systems before it enters the atmosphere.

Engineering Solutions Minerals (ENGSL Minerals) – an Abu Dhabi engineering company that is the technological development arm of Norwegian-owned EnPro, of which I am the director – has been spearheading research and development of innovative CO2 capture technologies to both reduce global CO2 emissions and create a valuable product out of this harmful greenhouse gas.

To this end, we have partnered with Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. The collaboration leverages the robust research capabilities of both organisations to develop optimal technologies that will reduce the cost of capturing carbon while increasing the efficiency of converting harmful greenhouse gases into a valuable and environmentally-benign chemical known as soda ash.

Soda ash is used in many industrial applications, including glass production. According to a report by MicroMarket Monitor, the soda ash market was valued at $16.4 billion (Dh60.2bn) in 2014, and is projected to reach just over $22 billion by 2019.

Creating value out of waste, while contributing to the reduction of harmful atmospheric greenhouse gases, is our major goal. We are continually researching ways to make our CCS technology more sustainable, energy-efficient and low-cost. Together with the Masdar Institute we will work to develop a novel, energy-efficient technology that can be adopted on a large scale and significantly reduce the harmful effects of climate change.

ENGSL Minerals engineers have already developed two patented CO2 capture technologies that I co-invented, which are more energy-efficient and affordable than conventional CO2 capture technologies. They could play a critical role in achieving the UAE’s goal of reducing CO2 emissions to help slow the pace of rising global temperatures.

The technologies use fly ash – the toxic ash by-product produced when coal is burnt – to capture CO2 from exhaust gases. The fly ash technology is being integrated at a large-scale pilot plant in Norway, funded jointly with the Norwegian Government, and has demonstrated its ability to sequester more than 95 per cent of the plant’s CO2 emissions.

CO2 capture technologies are usually expensive – capturing one tonne of CO2 can cost between $50 and $100 – but this new technology offers a cost-effective solution by producing a commodity – soda ash – with a steadily rising market value.

Researchers from the Masdar Institute, who are working under the supervision of Dr Mohammad Abu Zahra, associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering, will help to improve the CO2 capture efficiency and the quality of the soda ash product by identifying the optimum combination of fly ash with brine – the wastewater produced by thermal desalination.

During the 30-month project, Masdar Institute researchers will perform a techno-economic evaluation of the combined fly ash and brine technology to determine if the process is economically feasible. The researchers will investigate methods to produce soda ash and other sodium-based products, using a combination of fly ash, modified fly ash and brine, in the most efficient and sustainable manner.

ENGSL is constructing a pilot scrubber test column to test this technology at a larger scale.

The combined fly ash and brine CO2 capture technology can also be used to produce CO2 for enhanced oil recovery. This process is more sustainable than conventional oil recovery methods, which are either very energy-intensive or environmentally harmful. The process could help the UAE achieve its target of 70 per cent oil recovery.

The collaboration with Masdar Institute will help give its faculty and students the opportunity to develop relevant, cutting-edge systems for a real industrial problem. It will also help bring the world closer to a zero-CO2-emission future.

Mohammed Olfi is director of ENGSL Minerals