Could CO2 sequestration be the answer to climate change?

Furqan Hussain believes his research could help make the fossil fuel industry carbon neutral and stop climate change in its tracks.

Dr Furqan Hussain has set himself a clear research goal: “I am investigating CO2 sequestration as a prime way to mitigate global warming and climate change, which is one of the biggest threats facing humanity today.”Dr Furqan Hussain, Senior Lecturer, School of Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering

Taking the highly practical viewpoint that to sustain our current and future energy needs, even as we negotiate a future energy mix of more sustainable alternatives, Hussain says we will still need to use fossil fuels.

“It is likely that, globally, we will continue to use coal and petroleum for many decades to come, but burning these fossil fuels produces CO2 and worsens climate change. I aim to take CO2 captured from the exhausts of power plants, cement factories and steel mills, and inject it for indefinite storage in subsurface formations such as aquifers or petroleum reservoirs,” he says. In this way, Hussain believes there is the potential for making the generation of fossil fuel energy, carbon neutral.

Hussain, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering (MERE), originally hails from Pakistan, and soon after deciding to pursue an academic career he was awarded a much sought-after PhD scholarship at UNSW Petroleum Engineering, now MERE. He says his PhD research on liquid and gas flow computation in rocks soon led to a keen interest in CO2 sequestration and since then, projects and funding have flowed his way.

“My research group is undertaking several projects that are focused on methods to maximise the storage and injectivity of CO2 deep underground,” he says. These projects include investigating ways to reduce the mobility of CO2 in petroleum reservoirs, which can displace more oil and create more space for CO2; improving the miscibility (the capability of being mixed), of oil and injected CO2 to improve oil displacement; and water disposal issues related to CO2 sequestration in aquifers.

If squirrelling CO2 away in the ground feels like a Band-Aid that might just peel off at an inconvenient time, Hussain says this isn’t something we need to be concerned about.

“CO2 sequestration is safe. The petroleum reservoirs we are considering injecting CO2 into have contained oil and gas at high pressure and high temperature for millions of years and nature has supplied foolproof rock layers that act as seals to stop the oil and gas getting out,” he explains.

Related to the safety aspect, Hussain is also working on a project with fellow MERE academics Dr Stuart Clark and Dr Simit Raval to create a dynamic model that can monitor the interactions (i.e. CO2 moving between layers) between the storage formation and shallower aquifers.

I aim to take CO2 captured from the exhausts of power plants, cement factories and steel mills, and inject it for indefinite storage in subsurface formations such as aquifers or petroleum reservoirs.

Dr Furqan Hussain, Senior Lecturer, School of Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering

“This project is designed to create a method that industry can use to assure regulators that the chosen site is a safe, feasible environment for CO2 sequestration, and there is a monitoring strategy which can monitor how CO2 is moving into the storage formation, and whether any of the CO2 is migrating upwards,” he explains.

According to Hussain, there is a lot of international interest in CO2 sequestration, particularly as a way of enhancing oil production, which is boosting research opportunities in Europe, the US, Great Britain, China, Australia and Canada. Many developing countries have also started to look into CO2 sequestration.

“CO2 sequestration has been successful in Norway for a decade or more as a result of Norway’s carbon tax. Companies using fossil fuels pay into a fund that compensates for the CO2 injection costs, which is a great example for countries like Australia to follow,” he says.

Hussain acknowledges the loaded nature of the energy debate in Australia, and that energy policy has failed through a succession of governments. But says CO2 sequestration research is full steam ahead here and he is hopeful his research goes some way to providing the evidence base to support growing political willpower and public perception change.

“CO2 sequestration is the only method available to make fossil fuel energy usage carbon neutral but, right now, it is only financially feasible in oil reservoirs (where it is undertaken to displace and extract more oil). CO2 sequestration in water aquifers is also on our radar, although it is a newer technology and there are bigger economic barriers to hurdle.”

Written by: Penny Jones

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