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Biofuel CCS Plant Inches Us Closer to Negative Carbon Emissions

ByAnnette ChoiNOVA NextNOVA Next

The first large-scale plant to take the carbon captured by photosynthesis and bury it underground opened last week, an important step in efforts to remove CO

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2 from the atmosphere.

Agricultural processor and ethanol producer Archer Daniel Midland (ADM) has flipped the switch on the Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage. The facility, based in Decatur, Illinois, produces corn-based ethanol and injects the waste CO

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2 into deep underground storage. It’s not clear if the process will be net negative—that is, remove more greenhouse gas than it produces—though it is an important first step.

Corn-based fuels, coupled with carbon capture and store technology, could help mitigate climate change.

The facility begins by capturing the CO

2 produced during the fermentation process that converts corn to ethanol, which can be used as a transportation fuel. The gas is then compressed into liquid form and stored in a saline water table a mile and a half underground.

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, also known as BECCS, isn’t a new idea . But the ADM plant is the first large-scale project in the world to focus on biofuels and to take the CO 2 produced by burning or processing plant matter and store it.

The Petra Nova project , the other leading, operational CCS facility is in Texas and opened in January. The facility captures CO 2 emitted from burning coal for electricity and uses the stream of gas to boost production from old oil fields.

While CCS plays an important role in climate change mitigation plans proposed by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, not everyone is supportive of the technology. Timothy Searchinger, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and an outspoken critic of biofuels, argues that the impact of carbon-emitting fuels like coal, gasoline, or bioenergy cannot be neutralized by CCS.

The new plant is projected to store 1.1 million tons of CO 2 every year for five years. ADM says Mt. Simon Sandstone, the geologic formation where the carbon from the Decatur project will be stored, has the capacity to hold billions more. Here’s Chris Mooney, reporting for The Washington Post:

Unlike in some other CCS projects, the carbon dioxide will not be used for the purposes of so-called “enhanced oil recovery” from depleted oil fields, Greenberg [a researcher at the Illinois State Geological Survey] said. This may add to the economic viability of CCS technology, but has drawn criticism because it promotes further use of fossil fuels.

The Energy Department praised the initiative. “Today’s announcement marks a major step forward for the advancement of industrial carbon capture and storage technologies,” said Doug Hollett, Acting Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy.

While researchers aren’t sure whether the ADM project will prove to be carbon negative just yet, they’re excited to find out. They say this technology is critical to limiting the planet’s warming and could serve as a model for reducing industrial carbon emissions elsewhere.

Photo credit: United Soybean Board/Flickr

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