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The father of carbon storage

The idea of storing carbon dioxide occurred to Erik Lindeberg some 20 years ago in his holiday home in Sweden. Today a researcher at SINTEF Petroleum Research, an independent research foundation, Lindeberg is proud to call himself the father of Carbon Capture and Storage technology.

16/05/2007 ::

Erik Lindeberg, chief researcher at SINTEF Petroleum Research. Photo: Rune Bjåstad

CCS, as the technology is commonly dubbed today, has the potential of becoming an essential tool in the struggle to contain global warming. Such storing of CO2 is already in place at the Sleipner oil field off the coast of Norway, where Statoil, the mostly state-owned Norwegian oil producer, separates CO2 from the natural gases extracted and pumps it back into geological formations a kilometre beneath the seabed.

The experimental research leading up to this technology can be traced back to 1986, when researcher Torleif Holt visited his colleague Erik Lindeberg in his summer house in Sweden. Nine years earlier, in 1977, Cesare Marchetti had come up with a way of storing carbon dioxide in the sea, but the method proposed by Marchetti provided no permanent solution.

Over the holiday, Holt and Lindeberg discussed this problem, and shortly thereafter they submitted an application for funding, the title of which read “Gas power plant with CO2 disposal”. Few years later the two colleagues were heading a Statoil project which sought to increase the yield of oil fields by way of CO2 storage. The technology they tested had been used in the United States to improve the extraction of oil from oil fields on land.

The SINTEF scientists proposed an offshore gas-based power plant capable of producing enough CO2 to allow for increased oil extraction if injected into nearby oil fields. Eyeing the possibility that this would entail the creation of new jobs, labour unions soon gave the project their backing. Environmental organisations quickly threw their weight behind the project. But the key factor making the project feasible, says Lindeberg, was the introduction in 1990 by the then centre-right government of a CO2 tax.

“CO2 storage did not arouse a great deal of enthusiasm initially”, Lindeberg explains. Businesses were largely opposed, and the project received scant support. Yet the introduction of carbon taxation made the Sleipner field profitable in a matter of months.

The new tax provided an impetus for the petroleum sector to shoulder a greater environmental responsibility than before. “Prior to the tax, oil companies in the Norwegian sector used to burn around two billion cubic metres of gas from their flame towers. This was subsequently reduced by half” Lindeberg explains.

Illustration: SINTEF/Erlend Engh Brekke

The North Sea seabed is suitable for carbon storage due to the particular characteristics of its underwater sandstone rock formations. Reservoirs are capped by a layer of shale, effectively sealing the gas in and retaining it. The greatest worry is how to make sure the gas does not seep back into the atmosphere in the long term.

Mr Lindeberg is currently undertaking research looking into how best to monitor the gas being injected into the seabed. A laboratory is being planned by Gassnova, the Norwegian government’s centre for research in gas power generation, in Brummundal in Eastern Norway. Here, CO2 will be injected into sedimentary rock formations, allowing scientists to study the behaviour of the gas up close.

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