Ethanol Plant Carbon Sequestration Makes a Million Tons of CO2 Disappear

While the climate change debate has thus far led to little U.S. climate mitigation, in the heart of America there's a very interesting carbon sequestration project going on that people may be about to notice.

In Decatur, Illinois, at an Archer Daniels Midland ethanol plant, over 300,000 tonnes of of carbon dioxide are now being collected annually, compressed to liquid, transported to a nearby site, and pumped deep within the earth. As one of the projects of the Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium, the Decatur site is using technology called Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, or BECCS.

BECCS technology, from Biorecro, isn't mind-bogglingly new. In fact, it is pretty much the same old CCS that fossil-fuel emitters have resisted voluntarily developing to keep their emissions lower, with an important twist.

Instead of being an add-on to catch carbon at the site of fossil fuel emissions sites like coal factories, BECCS is applied to much less carbon intensive operation such as ethanol plants, biogas plants, pulp and paper facilities, and combined heat and power plants fueled by biomass.

This twist means that in some cases, using BECCS allows negative carbon emissions, or carbon cleanup, to be created. At an ethanol plant, for example, the biomass has already sequestered carbon in its plant base via photosynthesis during growth, it's often considered carbon neutral when it is burned or otherwise combusted—at least if it's natually growing and not cultivated biomass that is. If the CO2 at that point is collected and sequestered, voila! negative carbon emissions—provided that the bio-matter sequestered doesn't get back into the earth's carbon cycle (unless it somehow escapes its sequestration!) and was actually carbon neutral to start.

As you are probably imagining, building a CCS system, including the technology to suck up the CO2 and the pipeline to carry it to the place where it is pumped into (usually) saline aquifers entails large investments. After initial capital outlays, Norway's Statoil is saving $100,000 in carbon taxes each day from the carbon it is sequestering at Sleipner.

That's also true for BECCS - big outlays are required to build plants and get CO2 in the ground. CCS doesn't have a good profile in the environmental community, and BECCS could run into problems.

Yet Biorecro's technology is not just hot air. Literally.

According to Biorecro CEO Henrik Karlsson, the Decatur project will eventually take 1,000,000 tonnes (approximately the equivalent of taking 300,000 cars off the roads) of CO2 out of the atmosphere each year.

Not bad for a very small Swedish company that has thus far made most of its revenues from its research expertise in CCS.

That's likely going to change, as Biorecro will next month announce the first (European) companies that have signed on voluntarily to pay Biorecro for the offsets it generates at BECCS sites.

Not many people trumpet the possibilities of BECCS to help get to the goal of stabilizing climate change and the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to around 450 ppm. But perhaps they should be.

Related Content on