Alberta group models CO2 injection system off the coast of Canada

The dangers of a warming Earth caused by climate change are well documented. Scientists around the world agree: if we are to maintain the health (and even survival) of millions of plants and animal species around the world, we need to cap our carbon emissions now.

While reducing overall carbon emissions is the ultimate goal for humanity, in the meantime, we need to find ways to capture the carbon that is already in our atmosphere (if we are to cap global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees).

Fortunately, separate researchers around the world have already proven that: 1) Carbon can be captured from the air, 2) Carbon can be safely injected into underwater basalt deposits, 3) Floating platforms can be built for the purpose of this carbon capture and injection, and 4) Wind can supply the energy to operate such a platform. Now, we just need to put it all together!

That is what the Canadian-based project, Solid Carbon, hopes to do. The project features an international team of researchers, led by Ocean Networks Canada.

Basalt is the key

While many CO2 injection projects are focused on the use of sedimentary rocks, such as sandstone, basalt appears to provide an even better storage option. This is because the carbon solidifies much faster in these rocks, making it less likely to leak. Most of the world’s basalt lies beneath the ocean floor.

“Global projects, like CarbFix in Iceland, have proven that basalt injections can work for long-term CO2 storage,” says Rachel Lauer, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geoscience at the University of Calgary and a member of the Solid Carbon team. She specializes in numerical modeling of hydrothermal processes. “Now, we need to look at what happens when you inject a much larger volume of CO2 directly into the ocean crust.”

The team is currently modelling large-scale CO2 injections, using data from holes that were drilled by the International Ocean Discovery Program and currently monitored by Ocean Networks Canada researchers off the coast of Vancouver Island. (Data from these boreholes is transmitted to the Alberta-based researchers via the National Research and Education Network.)

“It’s important to know how permeable the crust is, how much seawater can move through it, and how much you can put in the formation before the formation changes,” says Lauer. “The modelling will show us how these properties change over time as the CO2 is mineralizing.”

“It’s a dynamic system. We think we understand it now, but it can and will change. There’s a lot of interactions to consider.”

The goal is to eventually create a subseafloor injection site evaluation tool. It would be used to plan similar injections at different depths, temperatures, and locations around the world.

Tapping the ocean

“Oceanic basalt is everywhere, it covers the ocean floor,” adds Benjamin Tutolo, a Geoscience Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary, who specializes in geochemistry. “And the technology to capture and inject the CO2 can be put on an offshore platform anywhere in the world, so it’s uniquely scalable.”

The project is supported by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, a collaboration of British Columbia’s four leading research universities.

The goal of everyone involved is to help address the issues created by climate change, which Tutolo calls “the crisis of our time”.

He foresees a future where dozens — if not hundreds — of these operations are working simultaneously to capture carbon around the world.

“The reality is: if we’re not capturing at least 1,000 megatonnes [of CO2] a year, we’re not making a dent in the problem,” says Tutolo.

Adds Lauer: “We’re in a critical time right now in Canada, in terms of where we’re investing in energy, and what our future trajectory is. We need to pivot. And this project could provide an important pathway for us going forward”.

Once the modeling work is done, the group hopes to find funding to begin demonstration of the technology in 2023.

Visit the Solid Carbon website for more information about this project.