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Teeradat Supap and head engineer Don Gelowitz in the Pilot Plant control room at the U of R International Centre for Carbon Capture. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.

by Sarah Ferguson

 

When it comes to carbon emissions, Saskatchewan occupies a significant area on the world map.

 

The province has the highest carbon footprint in Canada, according to Jim Harding, a former environmental sciences professor at the University of Waterloo. “The global average per capita is four tonnes per person. Saskatchewan’s average per person is 72 tonnes.”

 “Our entire provincial economy is tied to oil and gas production, so of course nobody is talking about the carbon footprint. Why would they?” Harding said.

 

But the University of Regina’s engineering faculty is working hard to change that statistic. Known for its leadership in the expanding technological field of carbon capture, engineering faculty researchers at the campus’s International Centre for Carbon Capture are developing technologies that researchers claim will eventually reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being expelled into the earth’s atmosphere.

 

“The idea is that the advancements we are making here at the university will reduce carbon dioxide in the emissions from existing major sources by as much as 90 per cent,” said Heidi Smithson, technical writer for the faculty.

 

“The carbon dioxide is captured and stored approximately two km underground, in geological rock formations,” Smithson said. “Some people get nervous about the idea of the pollutants leaking back up onto the surface, but the truth is that the rock located in the underground regions will prevent that from happening.”

 

Carbon capture processes are also used to extract oil from the ground, and can inject money into Saskatchewan’s economy, said Malcolm Wilson, CEO of Regina’s Petroleum Technology Research Centre. “Thanks to carbon capture processes, the Weyburn Midale carbon capture project extracts 6,500 tonnes of oil per day, and that money goes directly into the Saskatchewan economy,” Wilson said.

 

The Weyburn Midale project is the first attempt at facilitating carbon capture in North America. The 11-year $85-million international project studies carbon dioxide injection and storage underground in depleted oil fields. Large volumes of the gas are captured from an industrial source and injected to revive oil production.

 

Research conducted at the U of R has focused on using chemical ‘amines’ –common chemicals found in everyday substances like hair gel or shampoo-- to capture carbon dioxide from fossil fuel emissions. “The amines bond with the carbon dioxide and prevent it from escaping (into the atmosphere),” said researcher Teerdat Supap. Smithson said that chemical amines have been used in industry for decades to treat gas.  “The key focus is to make it work, technically and economically, on large scales,” she said.

 

“The truth is right now, there is no single solution to replace fossil fuels, and we need to capture thousands of tons of carbon dioxide per day if we are going to make any impact on reducing industrial CO2 emissions.”

 

The centre is also well-known for retrofitting older coal burning factories with built-in carbon capture facilities, and has become an international leader on that front.

 

“The retrofit option makes the concept more attractive to industries, because it reduces the cost of rebuilding facilities, and can save them 25 percent in revenue,” said Smithson.

 

Harding disagrees with the concept. “All this talk about carbon capture is smoke and mirrors--a way of avoiding the fact that there is nothing we can do about our energy resources right now; we are forced to use coal to meet the needs of our society, and we need other options, but there are none,” he said.

 

“When it comes to the issue of carbon capture, there is really no discussion,” he said. “Its contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gasses is miniscule.”

 

Harding said SaskPower’s latest carbon capture project, built into the $1.2-billion retrofit of the Boundary Dam generating station near Estevan, is an example of the provincial government using the carbon capture concept to deceive the public.

 

“We have a small power grid in Saskatchewan that uses approximately 3,600 megawatts, and they are planning on using carbon capture to store about 100 megawatts of that energy, so it's not as impressive as it might seem. It doesn’t even leave a dent in the carbon footprint we are dealing with here,” Harding said.

 

But Smithson said carbon capture technology is still in its infancy, and will take years to develop to its full potential.

 

“Carbon capture and storage will likely make up about 20 per cent of carbon dioxide reductions in the next few decades; the CCS industry is likely to rival the natural gas industry in size,” she said.