Tag Archives: carbon

carbon industry

The new carbon industry

The Paris 2015 agreement presented cities with a global challenge. “Buildings and cities contribute upwards of 40% of global carbon emissions,” says Professor Deo Prasad, CEO of the Low Carbon Living CRC (CRCLCL).

Leveraging the knowledge of researchers from the CSIRO and five of Australia’s top universities, as well as experts in the field, the CRCLCL is heading up efforts to deliver a low carbon built environment in Australia. Its ambitious aim is to cut residential and commercial carbon emissions by 10 megatonnes by 2020.

“The CRCLCL is at the forefront of driving technological and social innovation in the built environment to reduce carbon emissions,” says Prasad.

Recognised as a world-leading research organisation by the United Nations Environment Programme, the CRCLCL collaborates with industry partners like AECOM and BlueScope, and universities and governments.

“We’re looking to bring emissions down, and in the process we want to ensure global competitiveness for Australian industry by helping to develop the next generation of products, technologies, advanced manufacturing and consulting services,” says Prasad.

CRCLCL activities range from urban sustainable design and solar energy to software and community engagement.

“By working effectively with government, researchers and industry, we employ an ‘end-user’ driven approach to research that maximises uptake and utilisation,” says Prasad.

– Carl Williams

lowcarbonlivingcrc.com.au

Ocean acidity devastates corals

Ocean acidity devastates corals

Featured image above by Kennedy Wolfe

Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere from activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation are changing the chemistry in the ocean. When carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is absorbed by seawater, it forms carbonic acid. The increased acidity, in turn, depletes carbonate ions – essential building blocks for coral exoskeletons.

There has been a drastic loss of live coral coverage globally over the past few decades. Many factors – such as changing ocean temperatures, pollution, ocean acidification and over-fishing – impede coral development. Until now, researchers have not been able to isolate the effects of individual stressors in natural ecosystems.

In an article published in Nature on 24 February 2016, researchers working at the University of Sydney’s One Tree Island Research Station at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) found that they could improve coral development by reversing the acidity of the reef waters.

“Our oceans contribute around $45 billion each year to the economy”

The international team – led by Dr Rebecca Albright from Stanford University in the USA – brought the acidity of the reef water back to what it was like in pre-industrial times by upping the alkalinity. They found that coral development was 7% faster in the less acidic waters.

“If we don’t take action on this issue very rapidly, coral reefs – and everything that depends on them, including wildlife and local communities – will not survive into the next century,” says team member Professor Ken Caldeira.

Destruction of the GBR would not only be a devastating loss because it’s considered one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, but would be a great economic blow for Australia.

Our oceans contribute around $45 billion each year to the economy through industries such as tourism, fisheries, shipping, marine-derived pharmaceuticals, and offshore oil and gas reserves. Marine tourism alone generates $11.6 million a year in Australia.

Impact of acidification on calcification

Corals absorb carbonate minerals from the water to build and repair their stoney skeletons, a process called calcification. Despite the slow growth of corals, calcification is a rapid process, enabling corals to repair damage caused by rough seas, weather and other animals. The process of calcification is so rapid it can be measured within one hour.

Manipulating the acidity of the ocean is not feasible. But on One Tree Island, the walls of the lagoons flanking the reef area isolate them from the surrounding ocean water at low tide – allowing researchers to investigate the effect of water acidity on coral calcification.

“We were able to look at the effect of ocean acidification in a natural setting for the first time,” says One Tree Reef researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, Kennedy Wolfe.

ocean acidity
The University of Sydney’s Kennedy Wolfe collecting water samples on One Tree Reef. Photo credit: Ken Caldeira

In the same week, an independent research team from CSIRO published results of mapping ocean acidification in the GBR. They found a great deal of variability between the 3851 reefs in the GBR, and identified the ones closest to the shore were the most vulnerable. These reefs were more acidic and their corals had the lowest calcification rates – results that supported the findings from One Tree Reef.

Marine biologists have predicted that corals will switch to a net dissolution state within this century, but the team from CSIRO found this was already the case in some of the reefs in the GBR.

“People keep thinking about [what will happen in] the future, but our research shows that ocean acidification is already having a massive impact on coral calcification” says Wolfe.

– Sue Min Liu

past Australian environments

Tracing change: past Australian environments

Curtin University researchers are creating snapshots of past Australian environments using the minute traces left behind by plants, animals and microorganisms. Dr Svenja Tulipani and Professor Kliti Grice from the WA-Organic and Isotope Geochemistry Centre looked for clues in sediments at Coorong National Park, South Australia, to find out how this system of coastal lagoons has changed since European settlement.

The Coorong Wetland is an ecologically significant area, but human water management practices and severe drought have led to increased salinity and less biodiversity, Tulipani explains. By examining microscopic molecular fossils, known as biomarkers, and their stable carbon and hydrogen isotopes, the researchers have identified the types of organisms that previously lived in the area, uncovering evidence for changes in water level and salinity due to changes in carbon and hydrogeological cycles.

“We found significant changes that started in the 1950s, at the same time that water management was intensified,” Tulipani says. “It affects the whole food web, including the birdlife and ecology,” Grice adds.


“We found significant changes that started in the 1950s, which was the same time that the water management was intensified.”


The project used Curtin’s world-class instruments for gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, as well as a new instrument that is capable of even better analysis.

“It allows for a new technique that reduces sample preparation time as the organic compounds can be analysed in more complex mixtures, such as whole oils or extracts of sediments and modern organisms,” Tulipani explains. “We can also identify more compounds this way.”

Tulipani has been able to use samples taken from the remote Kimberley region to examine an extinction event around 380 million years ago. Grice says the techniques are particularly relevant to the evolution of primitive vascular plants during this time period.

“In some locations of the Pilbara region, you can look at very early life from more than 2.5 billion years ago. You can go back practically to the beginning of life.”

Michelle Wheeler

Continents collide

Continents collide

Collecting rock samples at 5200 m on a recent trip to the Tibetan Plateau, Professor Simon Wilde, from the Department of Applied Geology at Curtin University, was pleased to have avoided the symptoms of altitude sickness. The last time he conducted fieldwork in a similar environment had been about 20 years before in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, and he’d managed then to also avoid altitude headaches. Nonetheless, he says, Tibet was tough. Due to the atmospheric conditions, the Sun was intensely strong and hot but the ground was frozen. “It’s a strange environment,” he says.

Wilde was invited by scientists at the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to collect volcanic rock samples at the Tibetan site. The region is geologically significant because it is where the Indian tectonic plate is currently “driving itself under the Eurasian plate”, he explains. During their recent field trip, Wilde and his Chinese colleagues collected about 100 kg of rocks, which were couriered back to Guangzhou and Curtin for study. The researchers will be drawing on a variety of geochemistry techniques to analyse the material as they try to paint a picture of what happens when two continents collide, gaining insight into the evolution of Earth’s crust.

“We’re trying to unravel a mystery in a sense,” says Wilde. “We don’t have the full information, so we’re trying to use everything we can to build up the most likely story.”

The Guangzhou geochemists will be analysing trace elements in the rock samples to uncover information about their origins and formation. Back at Curtin, Wilde is working on determining the age of zircon crystals collected from the site, using a technique called isotopic analysis. This involves measuring the ratios of atoms of certain elements with different numbers of neutrons (isotopes) to reveal the age of crystals based on known rates of radioactive decay.

It’s work that’s providing a clearer picture of Earth’s early crustal development and is an area in which Wilde is internationally renowned (see profile, p18).

Gaining an idea of the past distribution of Earth’s continental crust has implications for the resources sector, Wilde explains. “It’s important for people working in metallogeny [the study of mineral deposits] to see where pieces of the crust have perhaps broken off and been redistributed,” he says. “There could be continuation of a mineral belt totally removed and on another continent.”


Continents collide: Copper in demand

Professor Brent McInnes, Director of the John De Laeter Centre for Isotope Research, is also interested in the collision of tectonic plates – to help supply China’s increasing demand for domestic copper. “The rapid urbanisation of China since the 1990s has created a significant demand for a strategic supply of domestic copper, used in air conditioners, electrical motors and in building construction,” explains McInnes. Most of the world’s supply of copper comes from a specific mineral deposit type known as porphyry systems, which are the exposed roots of volcanoes formed during tectonic plate collisions.

McInnes’ research involves taking samples from drill cores, rock outcrops and mine exposures in mountainous regions around the world to be studied back in the lab. Specifically, he and his research team are able to elucidate information about the depth, erosion and uplift rate of copper deposits using a technique called thermochronology – a form of dating that takes into account the ‘closure temperature’, or temperature below which an isotope is locked into a mineral. Using this information, scientists can reveal the temperature of an ore body at a given time in its geological history. This, in turn, provides information with important implications for copper exploration, such as the timing and duration of the mineralisation process, as well as the rate of exposure and erosion.

“Institutions such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences have been awarded large research grants to investigate porphyry copper deposits in mountainous terrains in southern and western China, and have sought to form collaborations with world-leading researchers in the field,” says McInnes.

“We’re trying to unravel a mystery, in a sense. We don’t have the full information, so we’re trying to use everything we can to build up the most likely story.”


Continents collide: Interpreting species loss

Professor Kliti Grice, founding Director of the WA-Organic and Isotope Geochemistry Centre, researches mass extinctions. As an organic and isotope geochemist, Grice (see profile, p12) studies molecular fossils in rock sediments from 2.3 billion years ago through to the present day, also known as biomarkers. These contain carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, or sulphur – unlike the rocks, minerals and trace elements studied by inorganic geochemists Wilde and McInnes.

Grice uses tools such as tandem mass spectrometry, which enables the separation and analysis of ratios of naturally occurring stable isotopes to reconstruct ancient environments. For example, carbon has two stable isotopes – carbon-12 and carbon-13 – and one radioactive isotope, carbon-14. The latter is commonly used for dating ancient artefacts based on its rate of decay. A change in carbon-12 to carbon-13 ratios in plant molecules, however – along with a change in hydrogen – can reveal a shift in past photosynthetic activity.

Grice has uncovered the environmental conditions during Earth’s five mass extinction events and has found there were similar conditions in the three biggest extinctions – the end-Permian at 252 million years ago (Ma), end-Triassic at 201 Ma and end-Devonian at 374 Ma. Among other things, there were toxic levels of hydrogen sulphide in the oceans. Grice discovered this by studying molecules from photosynthetic bacteria, which were found to be using toxic hydrogen sulphide instead of water as an electron donor when performing photosynthesis, thereby producing sulphur instead of oxygen.

“The end-Permian and end-Triassic events were almost identical in that they are both associated with massive volcanism, rising sea levels and increased run-off from land, leading to eutrophication,” Grice explains. Eutrophication occurs when introduced nutrients in water cause excessive algal growth, reducing oxygen levels in the environment. “There were no polar ice caps at these times, and the oceans had sluggish circulations,” she adds.

In 2013, Grice co-authored a paper in Nature Scientific Reports documenting that fossils in the Kimberley showed that hydrogen sulphide plays a pivotal role in soft tissue preservation. This modern day insight is valuable for the resources sector because these ancient environments provided the conditions for many major mineral and petroleum systems. “When you have these major extinction events associated with low oxygen allowing the organic matter to be preserved – along with certain temperature and pressure conditions over time – the materials break down to produce oil and gas,” Grice says.

For example, the Permian-Triassic extinction event – during which up to 95% of marine and 70% of terrestrial species disappeared – produced several major petroleum reserves. That includes deposits in Western Australia’s Perth Basin, says Grice, “and probably intervals in the WA North West Shelf yet to be discovered.”

Gemma Chilton

Forest decline is slowing

Forests worldwide are declining but the rate of decline is slowing due to improved forest management, according to the most comprehensive long-term forest survey ever completed.

The review of 25 years of forest management in 234 countries was conducted by Dr Sean Sloan and Dr Jeff Sayer of James Cook University, in conjunction with dozens of international researchers and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

The study found that the global deforestation rate since 2010 – 3.3 million hectares per year – is less than half that during the 1990s (7.2 million hectares per year).

This global slowdown is due to better management of tropical forests. Since 2010 the tropics lost 5.5 million hectares of forest per year, compared to 9.5 million hectares per year during the 1990s.

Sub-tropical, temperate, and boreal climatic regions had relatively stable forest areas.

Logging operation in Sumatra.
Logging operation in Sumatra.

Satellite data showed tropical forests degraded (damaged but not cleared) since 2000 are six times as extensive as all tropical deforestation since 1990, far more than in other climatic regions.

“While some of this tropical degradation reflects the temporary impacts of logging, the real fear is that much is the leading edge of gradual forest conversion,” Sloan says.

High rates of tropical deforestation and degradation mean that tropical forests were a net emitter of carbon to the atmosphere, unlike forests of other climatic regions.

“But tropical forests are emitting only slightly more carbon than they are absorbing from the atmosphere due to regrowth, so with slightly better management they could become a net carbon sink and contribute to fighting climate change,” Sloan says.

Despite growing demand for forest products, rates of plantation afforestation have fallen since the 2000s and are less than required to stop natural forest exploitation. Demand for industrial wood and wood fuel increased 35% in the tropics since 1990.

“The planting of forests for harvest is not increasing as rapidly as demand, so natural forests have to take the burden,” Sloan says.

Northern, richer countries had steady or increasing forest areas since 1990. Their forests are increasingly characterised by plantations meant for harvest.

While natural forests expanded in some high-income countries, collectively they declined by 13.5 million hectares since 1990, compared to a gain of 40 million hectares for planted forests.

Sloan says that investment in forest management in poorer tropical countries where management and deforestation were worst may herald significant environmental gains.

“But attention must extend beyond the forest sector to agricultural and economic growth, which is rapid in many low-income and tropical countries and which effect forests greatly,” Sayer says.


Background to Study

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) released the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015 (FRA 2015) on September 7 2015. The FAO began publishing FRA reports in 1948 to assess the global state of forest resources, given concerns over shortages of forest products. The FAO has published FRA reports at regular intervals since on the basis of individual reports from countries, numbering 234 for the FRA 2015. FRA reports now survey a wide array of forest ecological functions, designations, and conditions in addition to forest areas for each country.

For the first time, the FRA 2015 report was realised by dozens of international experts who undertook independent analyses of FRA data, resulting in 13 scholarly articles published in a special issue of the journal Forest Ecology and Management (2015 volume 352).

The data and trends highlighted in these articles are a significant advance for the global scientific and conservation communities. This article constitutes one of 13 published in Forest Ecology and Management and integrates their major findings.


This article was first published by James Cook University on 8 September 2015. Read the original article here.

Driverless car trials in South Australia

A major European carmaker will conduct the first on-road trials of driverless cars in the Southern Hemisphere in South Australia in November.

The testing by Volvo will be held in conjunction with an international conference on driverless cars in Adelaide.

Volvo will test the same vehicle being used in their “Drive Me” project in Sweden.

South Australia legalized the use of driverless cars on its roads earlier this year.

The testing is part of independent road research agency ARRB’s Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative.

ARRB Managing Director Gerard Walton said that automated vehicles are a short-term reality that Australia needs to be prepared for.

“The South Australian Government has been quick to recognise this,” he said.

“ARRB will establish how driverless technology needs to be manufactured and introduced for uniquely Australian driving behaviour, our climate and road conditions, including what this means for Australia’s national road infrastructure, markings, surfaces and roadside signage,” said Waldon.

Volvo’s testing will be undertaken in conjunction with Flinders University, Carnegie Mellon University, the RAA and Cohda Wireless.

The Premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill said the technology promises to not only improve safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions, but also to provide a real opportunity for South Australia to become a key player in the emerging driverless vehicle industry.

“This trial presents a fantastic opportunity for South Australia to take a lead nationally and internationally in the development of this new technology and open up new opportunities for our economy,” he said.

The driverless car trials will take place on an expressway south of the capital city of Adelaide on 7–8 November 2015.

Multiple vehicles will conduct manoeuvres such as overtaking, lane changing, emergency braking and the use of on and off ramps.

The International Driverless Cars Conference will be hosted at the Adelaide Convention Centre and Tonsley precinct on 5–6 November 2015.

This article was first published by The Lead on 21 July 2015. Read the original article here.

Australia’s energy future

Australia’s renewable resources include wind, solar, wave and geothermal energy, and there’s significant research happening to improve generation and storage technologies to overcome the inherent disadvantage of intermittent flow.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has completed 32 projects and is managing more than 200 others, including several large-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) plants and wind farms, which are considered the most advanced technologies in terms of making a short-term impact on our renewable electricity generation.

Australia’s CRC for Renewable Energy (ACRE), which operated 1996–2004, developed a state-of-the-art facility for testing grid-connected renewable energy systems, as well as small-capacity wind turbines for remote generation.

Australian scientists at the CRC for Polymers (CRC-P) have made big strides in the development of flexible, lightweight solar cells, which CEO Dr Ian Dagley describes as the “antithesis” of rigid rooftop solar cells. These lightweight cells offer intriguing possibilities: their flexibility means they can be placed on a variety of surfaces, from walls to windows, and they can operate indoors to help charge electrical devices.

They’re also attractive because they’re considerably cheaper to manufacture than silicon solar cells. Dagley says his CRC-P team has been working on refining the manufacturing technique, which uses low-cost components and reel-to-reel printers. One of the goals is to increase the lifespan of the cells, which is about five years, whereas rigid cells last roughly 30 years.

Meanwhile, the CRC for Low Carbon Living (CRCLCL) is looking at ways to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by developing smarter, more energy efficient buildings and cities. CEO Dr Deo Prasad says lower carbon buildings can be realised by optimising design to ensure maximum energy efficiency, through integration of next-generation technologies, such as solar PV cladding and heat and electricity capture systems for on-site energy offsets, and by using more sustainable building materials that need less energy to extract, process and manufacture. At the suburb and city scale, Prasad says decentralised renewable energy generation, reliable storage and smart grids, linked with information and communications technology-based intelligence, will lower carbon impacts.

“We recognise there is not going to be a silver bullet solution to carbon reductions,” says Prasad. “The approach needs to be holistic and driven by industry and governments.”

There are challenges associated with increased renewable energy levels, but Australia’s National Electricity Market seems to be handling integration well so far, says Dr Iain MacGill, joint director of the UNSW Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets. Studies by the Australian Energy Market Operator show it’s possible to operate the national grid with 100% renewables. “It won’t be cheap – just a lot cheaper than unchecked climate change,” MacGill says.

Russell Marsh, director of policy for the Clean Energy Council, emphasises the importance of commitment. “Investors need long-term certainty to ensure a rate of return,” says Marsh. “The Federal Government needs to lock in a firm, long-term target.”

MacGill agrees that the right policies can incentivise investment, but adds that it requires leadership and social consensus. “Australia is contradictory on clean energy. We have an early history and remarkable success in renewable energy deployment, and fantastic renewable resources. But we are also among the world’s largest coal and gas exporters,” he says.

“Will we take a leadership role, or do all we can to keep our international coal and gas customers buying from us?”

energy5


Remodelling energy

While coal and gas continue to be our dominant energy sources, the once-burgeoning renewables industry has been hindered by the Federal Government’s recent review of the Renewable Energy Target (RET). The review recommended scrapping the 20% target for renewable electricity generation by 2020, resulting in political deadlock and investor uncertainty across the renewable energy sector.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Australian head, Kobad Bhavnagri, says the review was especially damaging because it came “very close to making retroactive changes to a policy”.

“Whenever retroactive changes are made to policy it becomes, essentially, Ebola for investors,” he says. “When governments act unpredictably and destroy the value of existing assets, it scares people – for a long time.”

Australia generates more carbon emissions per person than any other OECD country. One-third are generated by the electricity sector, in which coal and natural gas account for roughly 85% of generating capacity. Renewables, mostly from hydropower, account for about 15%.

Reaching the 20% target during the next five years will not be cheap. At the time of the review it was estimated that another $18 billion of investment would be required to reach the target.

But the costs associated with increased generating capacity are yet to be weighed against the costs of potentially catastrophic climate change. Scientists have warned a 2°C increase in overall average temperatures from pre-industrial levels is the limit our planet can withstand before the effects of climate change become irreversible.

In December 2014, following the release by the International Energy Agency (IEA) of its report World Energy Outlook 2015, the agency’s chief economist and director of global energy economics, Dr Fatih Birol, told Bloomberg’s Business Week that global investment in renewable energy needs to quadruple to a yearly average of $1.6 trillion until at least 2040, to stay below that warming threshold.

Some of the world’s biggest economies have taken note. Estimates by the Climate Interactive indicate the US-China emissions deal, if implemented in full, could keep some 580 billion tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere between now and 2030 – more than all global fossil fuel emissions from 1990 to 2013.

In 2014 – while China spent US$64 billion on large-scale clean energy projects, increasing its 2013 total by about US$10 billion – the USA spent nearly US$13 billion on utility-scale renewables and continued to expand production of its almost carbon-neutral shale gas reserves (see here for Australia’s progress).

Research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance found Australian investment in large-scale renewable energy in 2014 was US$223 million – the lowest in more than a decade. 2014 saw Australia nose-dive from 11th largest investor in commercial clean energy projects to 39th, behind developing nations such as Honduras and Myanmar.


The 2040 outlook

If Australia is serious about boosting its capacity for renewable energy, 2040 is a good deadline, says Iain MacGill, joint director (engineering) for the Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets at UNSW Australia – by then we’ll need “a major infrastructure transition”.

Russell Marsh is Director of Policy for the Clean Energy Council, the peak body representing Australia’s clean energy sector. “With the right level of support we could see the deployment of renewable energy at least double between 2020–2040,” he says. “But if the target is not extended beyond 2020, it is unlikely that we will see further growth.”

This view is backed by the Australian government’s Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE). In a November 2014 report looking towards mid-century electricity production, it reported “In the absence of potential new policy initiatives, the relative shares of fossil fuels and renewables in electricity generation are not likely to change significantly”.

In fact, BREE’s projections show renewable generating capacity remaining stable, meeting 20% of Australia’s total demand from 2020–2050. In this scenario, coal-fired power would still account for 65% of electricity by mid-century.

There are concerns that the current policy uncertainty is reaching a tipping point, which could see companies exiting Australia or going into distress.

Policy uncertainty  is taking a toll on  the business end of renewable energy.
Policy uncertainty is taking a toll on the business end of renewable energy.

In July 2014, RenewEconomy reported that Recurrent Energy, a US solar power plant developer being acquired by Canadian Solar, was planning to cease its Australian operations, citing concerns over policy uncertainty. Several other large international renewable energy companies, including Spain’s Acciona and US-based First Solar, have warned of possible exits, should the Renewable Energy Target be amended.

MacGill says exits are inevitable. “Why would an internationally focused renewable energy company stay if there is no prospect for their projects to go forward?

“They can, should and will depart at some point,” he says. “And with their departure, we will lose institutional capacity – such as people, money and industrial knowhow – which will inevitably
slow our ability to deploy clean energy, and increase its costs.”

Marsh agrees the risk to the industry is significant. “Every day, week and month that goes by with a cloud hanging over support for the renewable energy industry are days, weeks and months when our international competitors are racing ahead of us – and reaping billions of dollars in investment in this global growth market.”

Dr Deo Prasad, CEO of the CRC for Low Carbon Living, says that while the effects aren’t as dramatic, policy uncertainty also impacts the research community, especially “end-user driven projects where collaboration is essential”.

“Many a research direction and focus has had to change over the years, for the worse, due to policy uncertainty,” he adds.

Myles Gough

CRC for Low Carbon Living

CRC for Polymers (CRC-P)

Exploring carbon capture and storage futures

The Great Ocean Road, about 200 km southwest of Melbourne, draws millions of tourists to view the spectacular cliffs and limestone stacks known as the Twelve Apostles, carved by relentless Bass Strait waves and winds. But this region is as rich in fossil fuels as it is in scenic beauty, and several commercial gas fields have been opened in the Otway Basin along the continent’s southern margin.

There is also the CRC for Greenhouse Gas Technologies’ (CO2CRC) flagship carbon capture and storage (CCS) trial: the CO2CRC Otway Project – the world’s largest demonstration of its kind.

Since the project started in 2008, the Australian government, US Department of Energy and CRC partners have funded the injection of more than 65,000 tonnes of CO2 into the Otway Basin’s depleted gas fields, without leakage or measurable effect on soil, groundwater or atmosphere.

The project was further boosted by $25 million in Australian government funding in February this year. “The wide-scale deployment of CCS is critical to reduce carbon emissions as quickly and cost-effectively as possible,” says CO2CRC chief executive Tania Constable. “This funding will enable CO2CRC to embark on a new program of research to improve CCS technologies.”


Australia is well-endowed with natural resources. Its known uranium reserves are the world’s largest, and it is rich in natural gas. Traditionally, the most important resource has been coal: Australia has the fourth largest coal reserves globally and is the world’s second biggest coal exporter behind Indonesia. Coal exports – which have grown 5% annually over the past decade – will earn $36 billion in 2014–2015.

Figures like these have led Prime Minister Tony Abbott to declare coal “an essential part of our economic future”. Professor Chris Greig, Director of the University of Queensland’s Energy Initiative, a cohort of research expertise across all energy platforms, anticipates the country will continue to be reliant on fossil fuels, including coal, until at least mid-century. But just how far beyond that depends on how the world – particularly China, one of Australia’s biggest coal customers – addresses future climate change.

In 2014, the US-China emissions deal set China a goal to source 20% of its energy from zero-emissions sources and peak its CO2 emissions by 2030. In August 2014, amid worsening public sentiment over air pollution, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau announced that it would be phasing out coal-fired power in the capital’s six main districts by 2020.

China has been pouring money into the development of renewable energy technologies, spending an estimated US$64 billion on large-scale clean energy projects in 2014 alone. This was five times more than the next biggest spender, according to market analyst Bloomberg New Energy Finance. China is also investing heavily in CCS technologies, with at least 12 projects currently underway.

energyin3


There are several pathways toward reducing emissions from the electricity sector – from the adoption of nuclear energy and greater uptake of renewable sources and natural gas, to more efficient power plants and modified diesel engines that can burn liquefied coal. CCS, however, is one of the most promising methods for reducing emissions from coal-fired power stations. Capture technologies isolate and pump CO2 underground to be stored in the pores of rocks (see graphic page 29).

Rajendra Pachauri, who until early 2015 was Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the UN 2014 Climate Summit in New York, in September 2014: “With CCS it is entirely possible for fossil fuels to continue to be used on a large scale”.

Dianne Wiley, CO2CRC’s program manager for CCS, says CO2 capture technologies are already available to install. Their deployment is limited by high costs, but there have been strong successes. Wiley points to the commercial scale Boundary Dam Integrated Carbon Capture and Sequestration Demonstration Project in Saskatchewan, Canada – the world’s first large-scale power plant to capture and store its carbon emissions – as a good example of what’s possible with CCS technology. It became operational in October 2014 and, its operators say, is already “exceeding performance expectations”. The CAN$1.3 billion cost of the system should drop by around 30% in subsequent commercial plants, says Brad Page, CEO of the Global CCS Institute.


Greig says that investment decisions in favour of CCS in Australia won’t happen until more work is done to find high-capacity storage basins around the continent that can safely and reliably store CO2 emissions for several decades.

Constable says the recent injection of capital from the Federal Government to the Otway Project will help the CRC take the necessary steps to meet this challenge. She says it will “lower the costs of developing and monitoring CO2 storage sites, enhance regulatory capability and build community confidence in geological storage of CO2 as a safe, permanent option for cutting emissions from fossil fuels”.

Retrofitting CCS technology to existing plants isn’t an option: Greig likens that to “building a brand new garage onto the side of a house that’s falling down – you just don’t do it”. CCS would therefore require investment in new coal-fired power stations.

“A well-conceived energy policy for the electricity generation sector would see ageing, low-efficient plants replaced with high-efficiency ultra-supercritical [coal] plants,” says Greig, adding that these plants have lower emissions simply by virtue of their efficiency and could achieve emissions reductions of 25% compared to existing plants.


How CCS works

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The first step of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is capture. It involves separating CO2 from other gases in the exhaust stream from a fossil fuel power plant or some other industrial facility. This can be done with solvents that absorb CO2 or with ceramic and polymer membranes that act as filters. Once isolated, CO2 is compressed into a state in which the difference between liquid and gas can no longer be distinguished. It is then transported via pipeline to a prospective storage site. Here, the CO2 is injected into an underground reservoir, such as a geologic formation or depleted oil field. The CO2 has to enter the rocks without fracturing them, and can then be stored underground for thousands of years.

Myles Gough

CO2CRC

Fresh opportunities

THE WAY WE DESIGN BUILD AND MANAGE our urban spaces is undergoing a transformation that’s almost unprecedented in scope. We’re reimagining our cities and urban precincts in the face of changing climate, energy and security issues and a growing appreciation for sustainability principles. Individuals and organisations from a broad range of disciplines will need to play a role.

Dr Deo Prasad, the CEO of the CRC for Low Carbon Living (CRCLCL) and a Professor of Sustainable Development at the UNSW Faculty of Built Environment, personifies this multidisciplinary approach. Originally trained as an architect, Prasad obtained a master’s degree in science and program management and completed a PhD in thermal heat transfer in buildings.

The CRCLCL is a $48 million centre, announced in November 2011, of which the Commonwealth contribution is $28 million over seven years. The centre brings together property developers, planners, engineers and policy organisations with Australian researchers with an overarching aim of reducing carbon emissions by 10 megatonnes in the next five years – the equivalent of taking 2.3 million cars off the road each year. The CRCLCL research will bring about $680 million worth of benefits to the Australian economy over 15 years.

“Our focus is on enabling Australian industries and particularly small to medium enterprises to benefit from the new products, technologies, tools and systems. We’re trying to ensure the built environment sector can capture the benefits from going low carbon,” says Prasad.

Malay Dave, a PhD candidate at the CRCLCL and UNSW Australia Built Environment, is researching sustainable prefabricated or modular housing, with an end goal of developing a framework for “whole-systems design”. This approach considers the house as an energy system with interdependent parts, each of which affects the performance of the entire system.

“The need for housing that is both sustainable and affordable is a major issue globally,” he says. “Prefabrication, or off-site construction, offers huge opportunities in delivering environmental sustainability and economic affordability in buildings.”

Dave has a $95,000 scholarship funded by the CRC, which offers $30,000 per year stipends with a total of 88 scholarships available for the current funding period of seven years.

The CRCLCL is also working in parallel with the CRC for Polymers (CRC-P) to coat building cladding materials such as steel or glass with the next generation of solar cells – enabling light energy capture and distribution throughout a building.

Researchers at the CRC-P are in the process of developing these advanced materials for the next generation of solar cells for which the CRCLCL is investigating large-scale commercial applications (see page 7).

CEO Dr Ian Dagley says the CRC-P has a philosophy of putting postgraduate students on the most groundbreaking projects. “We want them to be doing work of high academic interest using state-of-the-art materials and techniques so they can publish in high-profile international journals,” he says. With two-and-a-half years of funding remaining, the CRC-P has filled all its 11 postgrad scholarships to the value of $1,060,000.

Other projects at the CRCLCL include researching innovative building materials such as concrete with reduced embodied carbon. They are also developing tools and collating data to measure the impact of urban developments in terms of water, waste, energy and materials.

The CRCLCL also collaborates with the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities for this, “developing design ‘charrettes’ [intense design workshops] to ensure development goals for water and carbon aspirations are well-established,” explains Prasad.

The third main CRCLCL research program involves community engagement. “Technology or design in itself won’t fix the problem,” says Prasad. “We need to look at what resonates with communities – why they take up certain initiatives and not others.”

www.lowcarbonlivingcrc.com.au

www.crcp.com.au

www.watersensitivecities.com.au