Dr. Jason Bara, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at The University of Alabama, is available by email or phone to talk about the effects of potential EPA regulations set to be proposed by the Obama Administration on Monday.
Bara researches the development of processes for clean-energy generation that uses new solvents with little or no volatility for scrubbing CO2 emissions, which has resulted in two U.S. patents with others pending.
“We pursue this work with novel solvents to hopefully achieve the greatest energy efficiency for CO2 capture,” Bara said. “It’s the magnitude of the problem and the impact on the global economy that makes it extremely important that capture processes be highly optimized when they are rolled out at full scale.”
The energy industry's reluctance to embrace carbon capture is understandable considering making money of the process is not assured.
"We have the technology to do this, though it’s not mature enough for full-scale capture at power plants, so the question is what is it really going to cost?" Bara said. "Even the people doing this work at the largest scales don’t quite yet know. That’s the challenge.
"I would say there is not enough steel or engineers available if we decided to capture CO2 from every power plant around the globe today. The chemical industry couldn't support the demand even if we use the simplest solvents out there. You’d run out of chemicals quickly. So, it’s going to have to be phased in. There are a number of industries that will have to catch up."
If forced through government environmental regulations to strictly curtail emissions of greenhouse gasses, the industry will likely, initially at least, switch coal plants over to natural gas, which is already happening.
"It’s the simplest way to reduce emissions, especially while the cost of natural gas is low," Bara said.
Still, there's too much untapped coal for it to be abandoned without further advancements in alternative energy sources.
"Coal is going to be around for a while," Bara said. "We have a lot of it, and it will get cheaper if there is a broad move to natural gas."
That's why research into more effective means to capture emissions from coal-fired plants is needed.
"Carbon capture needs another five-plus years before projects have been scaled large enough before we start to really grasp of the full economic impact and see which technologies are the potential 'winners,'" Bara said. "Using captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery in certain geographic regions is a great benefit that should accelerate scale-up."