Carbon capture moves forward by degrees in Ill. farm country

Fields of parched crops surrounded Decatur, Ill., this fall as 10 students walked into the first-ever meeting of CCS 115.

The class, "Introduction to Carbon Capture and Storage," marked the start of the first undergraduate degree program on that technology at a U.S. college. It was clear enough why Richland Community College had started it.

For one thing, Decatur, nicknamed the Soybean Capital of the World in part for the huge processing plants run there by the Decatur-based agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Co., is home to one of the most advanced carbon capture and storage projects in the country. For another, Decatur had just endured one of the hottest, driest summers in Illinois history.

The spell of bad weather caused a drought even more severe than the notorious drought of 1988, when parts of the Mississippi River dropped too low for barges of coal and grain to pass. Lake Decatur dropped by two-thirds of an inch per day this summer, bringing the city to the point where local officials asked restaurants to stop serving glasses of water unless customers requested them.

The community college's sustainability director, Benjamin Newton, wrote a message about it to students and faculty.


"Although many think this may be an anomaly, with climate change this is a new typical summer for Central Illinois," Newton wrote. He then called for residents of the region to band together and help stave off the unwelcome changes already hitting them. "Climate change should not divide us but unite us," the message went on to say.

It acknowledged what nearly all scientists now agree on: Rising temperatures, fueled by human activities around the globe, are making these sorts of heat waves and droughts more common and more severe.

Those activities include the work of Archer Daniels Midland, or ADM, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from its ethanol refinery in Decatur and from the coal-burning boilers that power it. With nearly 4.5 million tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere in 2010, according to data submitted to U.S. EPA, the Decatur plant would be the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in 15 U.S. states, although not in coal-heavy Illinois.

Power companies have largely resisted pressure to start capturing their carbon emissions, and many government-funded projects have been slow to proceed as Congress has shied away from climate change as an issue, but ADM has already started to pump its CO2 underground, encouraged by the fact that Decatur sits atop a rock formation that is almost perfect for it.

Companies already use the Mount Simon sandstone as a storage tank for natural gas, so its properties are well known. The formation is capable of holding 27 billion to 129 billion metric tons of CO2, enough room for decades' worth of emissions from U.S. power plants, according to the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Some sites have better geology than others, but overall it is a very promising formation because of its size, ability to absorb CO2 and proximity to large sources of carbon emissions such as coal plants, said Bruce Hill, a senior scientist at the environmental advocacy group Clean Air Task Force who focuses on underground carbon storage.

Backed in part by Department of Energy funding, ADM is already piping 1,000 metric tons of CO2 per day into a 7,000-foot-deep injection well next to its ethanol plant in Decatur. The company now plans to scale up to 3,000 metric tons, roughly equal to the amount injected today at the largest storage sites, like the Sleipner natural gas field off the coast of Norway.

The project started a few years ago, when it seemed the government would soon make industrial plants curb their carbon emissions. That could have led to major costs for ADM, which burns coal and natural gas for heat and power at many of its facilities.

"You've got to remember, cap and trade was out there," project director Scott McDonald said during an interview. "It was in legislation. The EPA was looking at it. All of that has changed since the economic reversal, so to speak, but we still believe -- and this is the reason why ADM's in this project -- that capturing CO2 from ethanol plants is kind of the low-hanging fruit. If we can go after that first, we'll make significant progress."

Capturing the pure CO2 stream at an ethanol plant costs about one-quarter as much as capturing it from a coal plant, and for ADM, it could also help to cushion the cost of a carbon-constrained world.

Because plants such as corn absorb CO2 while they grow, sequestering the emissions from a biofuels plant has the potential to make the fuel carbon-negative, which would likely be worth money under a cap-and-trade program. By comparison, storing the emissions from burnt fossil fuels would be carbon-neutral at best because the carbon is being brought up from underground in the first place.

ADM started drilling a new storage well last month, a process that will take about six months. Now the company must show EPA that the project will not harm the environment.

The company was the first to seek a permit for a Class VI injection well under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and it expects to get its final permit from EPA early next year, once the agency is satisfied with the drilling plans and the subsequent monitoring to ensure that CO2 isn't going to leak back up to the surface or contaminate drinking water.

McDonald said the wait shouldn't be a problem, but it's still a learning process.

Being the first to apply for a permit, "we're the proverbial guinea pig," he said.

Carbon capture in the classroom

The project helped spur the neighboring community college into action as well.

Richland saw a void to fill; some U.S. schools were offering a class or two on the subject, but none was awarding customized degrees, said Doug Brauer, the community college's vice president of economic development, during an interview.

"I found other universities that had graduate work in it, but I couldn't find any four-year degrees, and certainly not any other community colleges," he said.

Students in CCS 115 are now learning the basics of climate science and energy policy, building their way up to a project where they will test the carbon storage capabilities of various plants at a prairie restoration site on campus.

The associate's degree program will then take students through another class on "advanced sequestration applications," which is called CCS 275 for short. That one won't be offered until next year because no one has passed the introductory course yet. Another required course, environmental biology, had 19 students enrolled this fall.

David Larrick, who teaches the courses and leads Richland's carbon sequestration program, said he is encouraged by the interest the course has drawn so far and hopes some of its inaugural students will end up finishing the degree program.

The classes meet in the new National Sequestration Education Center, funded in part by a grant from DOE, where an array of monitors mirror the control center at ADM's injection site. Some of the monitors will display underground radar images, while others will show seismic activity or readings from instruments that track the CO2 levels in groundwater, soil and the atmosphere.

The ultimate goal is to prepare the students to work in enhanced oil recovery or at a carbon storage site like the one in Decatur.

Some would go straight to work, while others could transition into a bachelor's degree program and eventually go to graduate school. But it is not yet clear whether the technology will take off, or who will hire Larrick's students.

So far, drillers in Illinois have not shown much interest in using CO2 to coax more oil out of their wells because the necessary pipelines don't exist. And despite the favorable geology, the owners of power plants in Illinois aren't likely to outfit them with "clean coal" equipment until the government gives them a reason -- whether that is a big carrot or a big stick.

Larrick said the program is designed to give students a well-rounded background in science and prepare them for a range of other careers, such as oil drilling, because it is hard to know where they will actually land.

"This is a new field, so we'll have to wait and see," Larrick said.