University of Calgary

CMC funding stokes powerful energy research

UToday HomeJune 14, 2011

By Alex Venter

TEXTGeoscientist Steve Larter is the scientific director of CMC and an investigator in a project that uses microorganisms to convert coal into natural gas, or methane.Microbes that convert coal into natural gas; the formation of icy carbon dioxide-hydrates; and public perceptions of carbon capture and storage are three areas of investigation that University of Calgary researchers are pursuing to address the problem of upstream greenhouse gas emissions.

Steve Larter, Mehran Pooladi-Darvish and Edna Einsiedel are each working on innovative research projects that are receiving funding from Carbon Management Canada (CMC), a Network of Centres of Excellence that supports game-changing research to eliminate carbon emissions from the fossil energy industry. The 2011 round of CMC funding will see $10 million awarded to Canadian university researchers working on 18 projects.

The coal bioconversion project is supported by a $1.92-million grant from CMC and $150,000 from industry partner, Encana. Another $660,000 from CMC will go to two University of Calgary-led projects: a novel method to store carbon dioxide (CO2) as a semi-solid gas hydrate and an assessment of attitudes towards carbon capture and storage. The decision to fund the projects was made after a rigorous, international peer-review process.

Geoscientist Steve Larter is the scientific director of CMC and an investigator in an ambitious project to coax communities of microorganisms to convert coal into natural gas, or methane, right in the ground. The methane produced from bioconversion could then be collected for use as a clean-burning fuel.

“What we’re trying to do is decarbonize the use of fossil fuels,” said Larter. “Fossil fuels are not going to go away very quickly, for practical, economic and other reasons, and yet we’ve got to stop emitting all this CO2 to the atmosphere.”

There are some 50 coal-fired power plants in Canada. Each emits roughly 3-million tonnes of CO2 a year. If made economically viable, the bioconversion method could potentially reduce Canada’s net CO2 emissions by 25 percent while allowing access to the energy stored in deep, unmineable coal.

Larter and 14 others will work together to investigate bioconversion at the nano-scale through to lab and field scales.

In another CMC-funded project, chemical and petroleum engineering professors Dr. Mehran Pooladi-Darvish, Dr. Hassan Hassanzadeh and their team at the Schulich School of Engineering will study a novel method to store CO2 as a semi-solid hydrate in depleted gas pools. The experimental method could make it possible to securely store CO2 emissions associated with oil sands in northeast Alberta without the need for long distance transfer.

Gas hydrates occur in nature, typically as molecules of methane (natural gas) locked in water crystals that are buried beneath permafrost or in deep ocean sediments. The University of Calgary method, initiated by Pooladi-Darvish and Olga Zatsepina, would trap CO2 along with methane as icy gas hydrates in spent gas pools. Because solids take up less room than gases, the gas hydrate storage capacity of depleted gas reservoirs is vast.

In addition to supporting greenhouse gas-reducing innovation, CMC is also funding social science research to inform policy-makers and industry preparing to put new technologies into action.

“The big problem, especially in the Western world, is that the public doesn’t like things near them,” explains Larter. “This human side of technology deployment is one of the issues that we have to understand and address.”

Communication studies professor Dr. Edna Einsiedel is leading an investigation into stakeholder and public attitudes towards greenhouse gas-mitigating technologies. In collaboration with researchers at Ontario’s Trent University, the University of Victoria and the Pembina Institute, Einsiedel will compare views on energy technologies in four Canadian provinces.

The team hopes to find out how and why people make the judgments they do about given technologies, including hydroelectric power and wind power in Ontario, and carbon capture and storage in Alberta. People typically raise questions from “What is the purpose of this technology?” to “Who benefits?” and “How do we ensure this technology is safe?”

Einsiedel noted that public engagement is a critical part of transparency and accountability, not only in government, but also in the investment community, who must answer to shareholders and the general public.

“Understanding how public values and preferences can contribute to shaping a technology is just as important … The scientific solution is only half the answer,” Einsiedel stresses. “You might build a great mouse trap, but if nobody wants to use it, then what good is that?”