BLOG: Pooling European learning and expertise to protect our atmosphere

Dr Maxine Akhurst

By Dr Maxine Akhurst

Maxine Akhurst is a research geoscientist at British Geological Survey (BGS) in Edinburgh and leader of CO2 storage research in the ALIGN-CCUS project. She recently hosted the second technical meeting for the project at the BGS offices in Edinburgh.

The adverse effect on the Earth’s atmosphere by the emission of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), is of concern because it affects us all. There are consequential changes, to weather patterns and so the environment, wildlife and agriculture, associated with increasing CO2 emissions to the atmosphere.  My research considers how we can reduce these emissions from large industrial sources, by preventing their release to the atmosphere. CO2 from industrial processes can be captured at their source and permanently stored deep in the subsurface in geological formations, occupying the microscopic pores that previously contained oil, gas or salt water.

The UK has many geological formations and so prospective CO2 storage sites in rocks beneath the North Sea. Before North Sea exploration and production hydrocarbons were securely contained in the subsurface strata for many millions of years. These geological formations are well known and understood from decades of oil and gas production.  My research looks at how and where CO2 can be permanently and securely contained in the subsurface, occupying pore space which previously held hydrocarbon or brine, rather than released to the atmosphere.

In the UK we can look to our immediate North Sea neighbours, who have successfully operated subsurface storage for over 20 years. More than twenty million tonnes of CO2 have been securely stored since 1996 in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea. The CO2 has been captured and stored in geological formations overlying the Sleipner Gas Field, immediately east of the UK North Sea, demonstrating how knowledge and expertise established at oil and gas fields can be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although there are many CO2 storage projects around the world, the Norwegian offshore operations at Sleipner and also Snøhvit are demonstrations of how UK storage sites would operate. In ALIGN-CCUS we can learn in hindsight from planned and operational European storage projects. The UK can use its own offshore geological CO2 storage resource and expertise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and so meet agreed national emissions reduction targets.

I have worked with industry, university and geological survey colleagues on CO2 transport and storage since 2008. In ALIGN-CCUS I now also work with capture and utilisation experts from industry and research institutes. Collectively, our objective is to reduce the cost of capture, transport and offshore storage of CO2 and make it cheaper for the UK to meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets. My colleagues will be using laboratory and pilot project investigations to refine and improve the CO2 capture process. Shipping and pipeline information is being used to assess how to optimise and reduce the cost of CO2 transport.  In my own work, hard-won data and observations recorded during oil and gas field operations are fundamental information on which geological storage sites will be cost-effective in the near and far future.

Although I have worked in many CO2 storage research projects, the ALIGN-CCUS project is a ‘first’ for me; working directly together with capture and utilisation researchers as well as my established peer-group of European storage experts. It has already been quite a journey. Our first consortium bid meeting was during July 2016 in the Netherlands. It was a big and pleasant surprise. My new capture colleagues very clearly spelt out what they wanted from CO2 storage, that is, from me and my familiar group of geoscience colleagues from research organisations in the Netherlands and Norway.

First things first, we needed to meet the requirements of the call for research funding. Between us we debated how we should meet the required scope and entice the evaluators of our proposal to invite us to the second bid stage. This forged an appreciation of new colleagues, as we had not previously worked together, and built on well-founded collaboration with established storage researchers.  

Submitting a consortium bid is exciting, challenging and, at times, hair-raising as the completion deadline approaches. Aside from the proposed research of activities that have not been done that way before, or not done before at all, there is much other information to gather and provide in the specified format. Submission of a full bid is a substantial achievement in itself, then to await either the elation or disappointment at the outcome after the evaluators have done their work.   

The ALIGN-CCUS proposal was successful, one of two large projects of the eight that were supported by a combination of national and European funding, and we are now nine months on. The project is set up, we have worked out how we will achieve our proposed research, got started and now are well on our way. The pressure is on from the start for the storage research as our findings feed into and inform the transport research and national case studies. Our storage research started as soon as we had heard the good news of the success of our bid and the funding had been awarded.  We have talked and discussed our collaborative work at least once a month, by Skype, since the start of the project.

I was host to the ALIGN-CCUS researchers meeting in Edinburgh on the 15th and 16th May. I was really looking forward to welcoming around 80 colleagues from across the UK, Netherlands, Germany, Norway and Romania, many of whom had not been to Scotland or Edinburgh before. The meeting seemed to go very well, rewarding the many preparations and organisational effort of ALIGN participants based in Edinburgh. The meeting was a really great opportunity for face-to-face discussion of our ongoing storage research. Also to hear in-person of progress in the other ALIGN-CCUS disciplines of capture, transport and utilisation. For me it was a pleasure to put faces to voices heard during Skype and telephone calls and the many addresses included in project emails. We were extremely lucky with the weather, the sunny and warm conditions meant our visitors could see the historical city of Edinburgh at its very best.

The technical sessions gave ample opportunity for a formal exchange of research ideas and progress and also to respond to questions prompted by our emerging findings. New ideas and thoughts were aired and new linkages between the research activities were identified during the meals and breaks; with the additional challenge of trying to eat lunch and drink coffee at the same time.  It was exciting to be part of a wide, active and very capable research group. The curiosity and inspiration I felt during preparation of the initial research proposal were re-invigorated by our exchanges during the meeting.  I hope my ALIGN-CCUS colleagues are similarly enthused as a result from our meeting in Edinburgh. It is exciting to be part of research to accelerate CO2 storage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by ‘pooling’ expertise and learning across Europe for implementation in our own countries and worldwide to improve the health of the atmosphere.

(Icon created by ibnu manikin Hashanah from Noun Project)