DECATUR — New $208 million technology designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is doing its job underground near Richland Community College.
It’s an enormous project more than a decade in the making by University of Illinois scientists and Archer Daniels Midland Co. engineers. Called the Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage project, or CCS, it doesn’t involve wind farms or solar panels, which generate energy without emissions. The Mount Simon Sandstone stretches underground through Illinois, Indiana and parts of Kentucky, but area the researchers survey is about a mile wide and a mile deep surrounding the injection site.
The Decatur project aims to solve the puzzle of how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from today’s cheapest and most-used energy sources — coal and natural-gas power plants. Instead of CO2 being released into the atmosphere, the project pumps it into deep underground rock formations, where researchers believe it can safely be remain.
Scientists and environmental advocates say it is crucial to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere by human activity. While manmade climate change remains a subject of heated political debate, that hasn’t slowed the search for solutions to CO2 emissions. ADM is positioning itself as a leader in carbon capture.
“It has been no small task for ADM to take this step. It’s truly enlightening,” said Donovan Griffith, deputy director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. “This is another example of an Illinois business being a leader, not only in their own industry but in environmental protection.”
It’s an expensive undertaking, with the U.S. Department of Energy paying 68 percent of the cost. The remaining $66 million is split among other participating agencies. The federal money came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which was intended to help the economy recover following the 2008 recession. The DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory also manages the project.
“We need to look at these issues (and) reducing carbon dioxide,” said Alison Taylor, vice president and chief sustainability officer at ADM. “We need to look at our operations and be responsible; that’s a part of our business plan as well.”
ADM is a Chicago-based global agribusiness giant that has its North American headquarters in Decatur. It is the city's largest employer with more than 4,000 employees.
Taylor said the project makes sense economically for ADM, as most sustainability efforts must, but she said the company’s interest extends beyond the bottom line.
ADM hopes the project can demonstrate the technology to leaders of industries other than agriculture, Taylor said, and contribute to reducing global carbon emissions.
Long time in the making
Carbon dioxide is a common molecule found almost everywhere in the natural world. Its presence in the air serves as one of the main components of photosynthesis, how plants breathe and grow. Human beings breathe it out; it is in water and soil.
However, scientists say too much carbon dioxide in the air is the main reason the earth is experiencing warming temperatures, disrupting an equilibrium that they warn will lead to extreme weather changes. Excess carbon dioxide blocks heat caused by the sun’s rays from escaping the earth’s atmosphere, similar to heat kept in a greenhouse — hence the term “the greenhouse effect.”
Environmental scientists envision a future free of fossil fuels, the main source of excess carbon dioxide. They contend that growth of renewable energy sources and more efficient energy usage across the globe could ultimately stop the rising temperatures.
“But we're pretty far from that state of affairs today, and we won't get there overnight,” said David Hawkins, climate program director at the National Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group.
“So the question is, what to do about the emissions stream from the fossil power plants that are not going to shut down immediately, and that's where CCS could play a role,” Hawkins said.
Since the 1980s, scientists have considered underground storage of carbon dioxide part of a possible solution to stemming the tide of CO2 entering the atmosphere.
Other studies around the world are looking at ways to solve the biggest problem with carbon capture and storage: harnessing the carbon. Coal and gas exhaust is full of other molecules, and isolating carbon dioxide can be a complicated and prohibitively expensive process.
The ethanol production facility at ADM bypasses that problem. It produces 99.9 percent pure carbon dioxide, which means it is cheaper and easier to capture and store than the emissions from power plants.
“A process like ethanol production produces a relatively high concentration (of carbon dioxide) as a byproduct of the process itself,” Hawkins said. “You're able to skip a step that happens in a power plant — you don't have to separate the (carbon dioxide) with the gasses that it's mixed in a power plant exhaust stream.”
The study of limiting carbon emissions in Central Illinois has its roots in a 2003 initiative called “FutureGen,” funded by the U.S. Department of Energy under President George W. Bush. The project sought to build the world’s first coal-fired power plant with zero emissions in Mattoon Township.
Originally estimated to cost $1.65 billion, cost overruns in the ensuing years led to the project’s abandonment in 2015. Still, the department continued funding research on carbon storage at the Illinois State Geological Survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which ultimately led to the development of the Decatur CCS project.
The perfect spot
After conducting thousands of tests, researchers say they now have a thorough understanding of what carbon dioxide looks like when stored in the sandstone environment underneath the Richland Community College campus.
“You have to understand the environment before you change the environment,” said Sallie Greenberg, associate director of the Advanced Energy Technology initiative with the Illinois State Geological Survey.
It’s been a long road to this point. The researchers approached ADM in 2005 about buying the company’s carbon dioxide, but ADM decided to participate in the project instead, Greenberg said.
“Starting in 2007, we were funded to do a large-scale demonstration project on ADM’s property in Decatur,” Greenberg said. “At that time, we were already here doing the science, and ADM said we want to do it on a bigger scale.”
The Illinois State Geological Survey led the first effort, called Illinois Basin Decatur Project, which injected 1 million tons of carbon dioxide into a site under ADM’s campus. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first issued a permit for the second project in 2014, but construction of the injection well and more permitting requirements took several years to complete. Injections at the new site began in April.
In 2012, Richland opened a National Sequestration Center that was intended to educate visitors about the carbon storage technology and train future workers in the industry.
Greenberg described the project is a “sweet spot” between ADM and academia.
“It’s been the perfect combination of having a CO2 source and having really good geology to demonstrate this,” Greenberg said. “ADM’s factories produce carbon dioxide every day, and the earth’s geology surrounding the factories support carbon storage.”
As carbon dioxide is produced by burning corn in the ethanol plant, it is captured and compressed. It is then transported from the plant in pipes across the street and piped about 1.5 miles down to the injector well, said Nick Malkewicz of Schlumberger Carbon Services, a company that specializes in carbon dioxide storage and helps manage the project.
The pipes are sealed in concrete and are approximately 5.5 inches in diameter, Malkewicz said.
The material is compressed so it takes up less space below the surface. As an example, the compressed material of one Starbucks cup underground would equal 270 Starbucks cups at the surface, Greenberg said.
The other important factor in the area’s favor is the rock formations under the surface.
“In order for this to work, you need a layer of sandstone to inject the carbon into and hard layer of rock above it that acts as a seal,” Greenberg said.
The Mount Simon Sandstone is the soft rock that lies under most of Illinois. Greenberg said the carbon dioxide is compressed into a liquid, and then injected into the microscopic holes of the rock.
Greenberg compared the porous rocks to a crate of oranges or a sponge. There are solid spheres, but there are spaces in between it where the carbon dioxide can be stored.
The final product
Since April 7, about 310,000 tons of carbon dioxide have been injected below the earth’s surface into the sandstone formation. Overall, the project aims to store 1 million tons of carbon dioxide in the ground every year for five years, reducing ADM’s carbon emissions by roughly 5.5 million tons.
The specific amount of carbon dioxide injected each day depends on how much the ethanol plant produce, Malkewicz said. At peak efficiency, it can yield as much as 3,300 tons of carbon dioxide, but the average amount is closer to 2,200 tons per day.
“It ebbs and flows with the plant,” he said.
The process is monitored to ensure that carbon dioxide remains where it is injected and that the surrounding rock continues to react as expected, Malkewicz said. So far, he said researchers have been able to keep good track of the rock and gas formation.
“You can learn a lot about the rock by just listening to it,” Malkewicz said.
There is no indication that the carbon dioxide is moving, he said. If it does, operators would turn off the well and try to understand the cause of leak.
Since carbon dioxide exists naturally in the environment, a leak is not expected to do much harm, but the purpose of the project is to control where the carbon dioxide goes.
Scott McDonald, ADM project director, said new technology is being implemented to help reduce the cost of monitoring and creating images of the bedrock.
He said part of the research done by the team is to make the whole system is cheaper and less obtrusive for future users.
A lower carbon future
Power plants in the United States emit 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to the DOE.
Most environmental advocates would prefer renewable energy sources replace fossil fuels as quickly as possible, Hawkins said of other environmental engineers.
“But the thing about the climate change problem is that the impact is based on cumulative emissions over decades. It's not driven by annual emissions,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins said some players in the fossil fuel industry have backed CCS ideas. ExxonMobil has a CCS project in Wyoming that stores 2 million tons every year.
But Hawkins said the political element of reducing climate change will not go away: It’s unlikely power plants will ever be able to make carbon dioxide capture and storage profitable. The only true incentive he said, will have to come in the form of government taxes on carbon or a “cap-and-trade” system, which the federal Environmental Protection Agency used to reduce other pollutants in the 1990 Clean Air Act.
The CCS project in Decatur is simply “to show others that storing carbon dioxide is viable and effective,” Greenberg said. “It is already successful. Other countries and companies look at the project and have considered other projects,” she said.
Hawkins said while the capture technology for power plants is still in the experimental phases, projects like the one in Decatur are answering some of the few questions that remain on the storage side.
“There is a mark on the map above Decatur because everybody knows what is going on here,” said Steve Whittaker, director of Energy Research & Development with the Illinois State Geological Society. “It’s a really remarkable achievement.”