Carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) is an indispensable solution for managing climate change in the medium- and long-term, even though its development remains hampered by major technical and cost constraints.
Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have risen sharply over the past decades and passed the limit of 400 parts per million last September, contributing to global warming.
Facing this reality, CCUS technologies aim to capture carbon dioxide that is produced by industrial facilities, such as fossil fuel power plants, cement, steel, refining and petrochemical plants. The CO2 will then be compressed and stored in underground formations or converted into molecules for use in industries such as plastics, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
By 2050, the oil and gas used in the energy mix must have a low carbon impact. This will not be possible without the development of CCUS technologies. The scenario drawn up by the International Energy Agency (IEA), whereby global warming is limited to 2°C, is based on significant developments in the field of CCUS. To meet this goal, the industry would have to attain a capacity of 6 billion metric tons a year by 2050, a volume comparable to current oil and gas production: in which case, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) will eventually become a market worth hundreds of billions of dollars per year.
In 2010, Total set up a pilot project in Lacq in the French Pyrenees, for an investment of €60 million. Lacq was the first integrated CCS chain that involved capturing carbon as it exits an industrial boiler, transporting it to a storage site and injecting it into a depleted natural gas reservoir 4,500 meters underground. To produce steam out of natural gas, Total implemented oxy-combustion technology, which eliminates all nitrogen from the flue gas by replacing the air in the boiler with oxygen, leaving only steam and CO2. As of mid-March 2013, when injection for the pilot project ceased, 51,000 metric tons of carbon had been captured and stored.
The high costs associated with the most mature CO2 capture technologies need to be reduced, as must the high energy penalties (a plant equipped with carbon capture technology needs to consume 30% more coal than a standard plant to produce the same amount of electricity). Total is working on technologies that would entail smaller energy penalty or capital expenditures. One of the most promising techniques is Chemical Looping Combustion (CLC), which could reduce the energy penalty of carbon capture. The company is also working on technologies for converting CO2, particularly into feedstocks for the chemicals industry.
In addition to these technical considerations, other questions must be answered regarding market mechanisms, such as who will operate the capture and storage facilities and how financial rewards will be divided among the different players in the value chain. Other questions relate to regulations, such as how responsibility for storage operations will be allocated over time, and how to gain the public support for this technology. These are crucial issues given the projected size of the CCUS industry (among the biggest) and its importance in combating climate change.