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Archive for the ‘Climate change’ Category

Iceland’s CarbFix CCS scheme hopes to reduce carbon emissions from large-scale industry

I’ve just had an article published in BBC Future about how the CarbFix version of CCS (carbon capture and storage) can potentially be used to reduce CO2 emissions from large-scale industry, which in Iceland’s case consists of three aluminium smelters, a silicon metal smelter and a ferro-silicon plant.

The CarbFix method is adapted for Iceland’s porous, permeable basalt rock. Instead of taking thousands of years for mineralization to take place underground, with CarbFix it only takes 1-2 years. The procedure has been used to capture both CO2 and hydrogen sulphide from the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, where CarbFix is in operation, but potentially it could be used for other gases. Read the article to find out more!

A great deal of emphasis in CCS has been put on Direct Air Capture, which is also discussed in the article. Part of the reason for the expense is the need to capture and fix small concentrations of target gases, which is more challenging. A small DAC system is now in operation at Hellisheidi.

Using funds from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, the four-year Geothermal Emission Control (GECO) project is investigating the use of CarbFix in Germany, Italy and Turkey near geothermal fields as well as Iceland. As the bedrock in these countries is not basalt, the initial groundwork involves carrying out background studies of potential injection sites, such as the potential of different rock types to mineralize CO2 and permeability. Injection is due to start in 2021.

Emissions from Iceland’s power plants are minimal compared to those in other countries. Nevertheless, Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national power company that operates three geothermal power stations, is going to build a gas capture plant at one of its geothermal plants, Krafla, using CarbFix to capture the CO2 that is emitted, and in so doing intends to work towards becoming carbon neutral by 2025.

Because BBC attracts a global audience, my editor wanted me to include information on the processes involved in  conventional CCS as well, which I did. Currently, there are 2 large-scale power plants with CCS in operation, but the number of large-scale CCS facilities globally number 21: 2 of these are in power, while the remaining 19 are in industrial applications. I was originally given misleading information on the number of large-scale CCS plants operating, but after the article was published I was told the correct figures (see above), with which my editor says she’ll amend the article (she hasn’t done so yet).



Ban on heavy fuel use in the Arctic edges closer

A ban on heavy fuel oils (HFOs) in the Arctic could be expected in 2022/3, according to the Clean Arctic Alliance which held a seminar in the run-up to Iceland’s annual Arctic Circle Assembly.

A draft methodology for analysing impacts of a ban on HFO for the use and carriage as fuel by ships in Arctic waters was agreed at a February meeting of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

The Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEP72) held a meeting in April at which it was decided to move forward on developing an HFO ban in the Arctic. A ban already exists on HFO use in the Antarctic.

Out of eight Arctic states that are pushing for a ban, only Canada and Russia have not yet supported it – though they haven’t opposed it either – but Russia has been making suggestions and Canada wants a study done on the impact of a ban on coastal communities. They basically have not made their position clear.

Nevertheless, an important step will be achieved in January 2020 when sulphur content in fuel will be limited to 0.5%, down from 3.5%. Currently, most vessels use HFO with a sulphur content of 2.7%.

In Iceland, sulphur content of shipping fuel within 12 nautical miles of land must be limited to 0.1% from January 2020. However, HFO will be permitted if scrubbers are used. Anywhere outside of this area comes under the jurisdiction of the IMO. The reduction “will solve some problems but not all”, according to Árni Finnsson from the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, which organised the seminar.

Currently, 76% of fuel used in the Arctic is HFO. Vessels that spend long periods at a time in the Arctic are especially likely to be using the fuel. Some ships are fitted with scrubbers, which are designed to remove sulphur, but if vessels are using open-loop rather than closed-loop scrubbers – as 80% of boats do – the resulting effluent is also polluting.

Lighter fuel blends are being developed, but as these are mixed on board, HFO will still have to be carried, with the potential of oil spills that are hard to clean in the Arctic.

The Clean Arctic Alliance, a global body consisting of 18 organisations, is pushing for the use of the lighter distillate fuels, which already meet emission requirements for sulphur. When distillates are used, particulate filters could be installed to reduce black carbon emissions by over 90%. The Alliance points out that between 2015 and 2017, there was a 30% increase in the number of HFO-fuelled ships and 50% increase in black carbon emissions from HFO use.

Particulate filters cannot be used with HFO, as HFO contains too much carbon. The warming impact of black carbon in the Arctic is three times higher than over the open ocean.

“The ocean has been absorbing large quantities of emissions, equivalent to 20-30% of CO2 emitted by human activity since the 1980s. We need to achieve net zero emissions by 2050,” says Dr Sian Prior from the Clean Arctic Alliance..

Most of the area around Svalbard is already subjected to an HFO ban.

This blog was originally written for ENDS Europe.

Heavy industry in Iceland looks to CarbFix to become carbon-neutral

Iceland’s four largest CO2 emitters, three of which are aluminium smelters and the other a ferro-silicon plant, have signed a Letter of Intent with the Icelandic government to look for ways to become carbon neutral by 2040. The PCC silicon metal smelter at Bakki, which is another large emitter, is also expected to sign – “although our first priority is to get the operation running properly,” according to the environmental officer there.

The aim is to thoroughly investigate whether the CarbFix method for storing CO2 can become a viable option, both technically and financially, for storing CO2 emissions from these companies.

CarbFix was set up originally in 2007 in conjunction with the Hellisheidi geothermal power station, where CO2 is captured from steam and dissolved in water at pressure. The water is then injected into underground basalt rock at a depth of 500-800 m, where it forms carbonate minerals such as calcite within a few years. These carbonate minerals are stable on a geological time-scale.


Annual capacity at the Hellisheidi plant is around 12,000 tonnes CO2, which accounts for about a third of the plant’s CO2 emissions. The Hellisheidi plant also removes hydrogen sulphide (H2S) from the steam, but this will not be an issue with the companies intending to become carbon-neutral by 2040.

In 2017, a pilot-scale Direct Air Capture unit was added to the system: this process is independent of location as it mostly relies on energy in the form of heat, which is available as a by-product in numerous industrial processes. Unfortunately the technique is currently too expensive to be used  for making heavy industry climate-neutral.

The project with heavy industry, which is expected to span five to ten years, will involve analysing the concentration of CO2 in emissions, so that similar removal techniques can be applied to those at Hellisheidi. The next step will involve design and manufacture of experimental equipment for capturing and injecting CO2, followed by design and manufacture of similar equipment on a larger scale.

The standard method of carbon capture and storage (CCS) involves pumping oil into old gas fields or using some form of carbon capture and usage (CCU). Edda Sif Aradóttir, who is project manager of CarbFix, says there are both advantages and disadvantages to traditional methods.

“The CarbFix method transforms CO2 into minerals within two years through a chemical process that happens naturally in nature, while traditional methods store CO2 in gas or liquid form. The procedure is thus of a completely different nature and CO2 is permanently removed,” she says.

She says that the main disadvantage is that it requires a considerable amount of water to dissolve the CO2 where chemical changes occur between water and rock. “On the other hand, the water needed by the procedure may be reused, which we in fact do up at Hellisheidi … we are working at developing the process even more so that seawater can be used,” she explained.

Funding for the CarbFix2 project has come from various programmes within the EU, including Horizon 2020, with collaborators in Toulouse, Barcelona and Zurich. CarbFix2 is designed to move the project on from a demonstration phase to one which will lead to an economically viable, complete CCS chain that can be used within Europe and globally.

Future research involves exporting the method to new injection sites in Germany, Italy and Turkey as well as Iceland, and further developing the method so it can be used offshore for permanent mineral storage of CO2 on the sub-sea floor. CarbFix proponents say that there is far more storage available in porous sub-marine basalts than required for the geologic storage of all the anthropogenic CO2 that will ever be produced.

I also wrote about this for ENDS Europe Daily today.


Carbon-neutral liquid fuel developed from sunlight and air

Swiss researchers in Zurich have managed to manufacture synthetic liquid hydrocarbon fuels from sunlight and air. Whether it will ever be commercially viable is another story as they can currently only make about 100 ml of fuel a day. Still, the press release quotes Philipp Furler, a former doctoral student in the research group who now heads Synhelion, a spin-off company that aims to commercialise solar fuel production: “A solar plant spanning an area of one square kilometre could produce 20,000 litres of kerosene a day … Theoretically, a plant the size of Switzerland – or a third of the Californian Mojave Desert – could cover the kerosene needs of the entire aviation industry.”

The process only produces the same amount of CO2 that is extracted from the air. The process works like this: CO2 and water are extracted directly from ambient air and split using solar energy. This process yields syngas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide (CO), which is subsequently processed into kerosene, methanol or other hydrocarbons and can be used in planes and other forms of transport.

The research is being carried out at ETH Zurich technical university. One of the researchers, Aldo Steinfeld, Professor of Renewable Energy Carriers at ETH Zurich, says that “the thermochemical process utilises the entire solar spectrum and proceeds at high temperatures, enabling fast reactions and high efficiency.”

For those with a technical bent, this is a description of the technology used:

The process chain of the new system combines three thermochemical conversion processes: Firstly, the extraction of CO2 and water from the air. Secondly, the solar-thermochemical splitting of CO2 and water. Thirdly, their subsequent liquefaction into hydrocarbons. CO2 and water are extracted directly from ambient air via an adsorption/desorption process. Both are then fed into the solar reactor at the focus of a parabolic reflector. Solar radiation is concentrated by a factor of 3,000, generating process heat at a temperature of 1,500 degrees Celsius inside the solar reactor. At the heart of the solar reactor is a ceramic structure made of cerium oxide, which enables a two-step reaction – the redox cycle – to split water and CO2 into syngas. This mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide can then be processed into liquid hydrocarbon fuels through conventional methanol or Fischer–Tropsch synthesis.

Five years ago, Steinfeld and his team sent out another press release along similar lines, producing “solar kerosene” via a thermochemical process using concentrated solar energy. More on this technology can be read here.



Youth and Agenda 2030

Young people are becoming increasingly active in the political sphere, at least in terms of environmental issues. The Fridays for Future student climate strikes, started by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, have become international and are no longer limited to school students.


Both the Norwegian climate and environment minister, Ola Elvestuen, and the Icelandic environment minister, Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson, say they will hold meetings with the organizers of the climate strikes in the spring. Iceland’s Prime Minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, will also be involved in the Icelandic meetings.

Iceland set up a 12-person Youth Council last year that is aimed at spearheading the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs – also known as Agenda 2030) in Iceland, while a similar Youth Council exists in Finland. The Icelandic Youth Council has been very active; for instance, the team turned out in force at a conference for young people under 30, called Youth Leading a Sustainable Lifestyle, that was held in Reykjavik in April. Thunberg gave a short video presentation to the conference, the text of which is included in this article I wrote.

The Nordic Council of Ministers officially launched Generation 2030, a youth-centred programme that focuses on SDG 12 (sustainable consumption and production)  in September 2017, though preparations had started the year before, while Regeneration 2030 is for young people aged 15-29 who live in the Nordic countries or Baltic Sea states. It was one of the organizers of the April conference in Iceland, and will hold its second Summit in Åland in August, with the theme of Changing Climate, Changing Lifestyles.

In the European elections that have just happened, the Greens increased their share of the vote by about 38%. The turnout for the 2019 European elections was also higher than usual, and young people were said to have participated in greater numbers than before. Whether or not they voted Green is hard to say.

Ambitious climate programme ignored

Is climate change considered unimportant by Iceland’s citizens? Early in the week, the Icelandic government unrolled an ambitious Action Plan to tackle climate change, with the goal of being carbon-neutral by 2030. But no one is talking about it. Progressive trade union leaders, politicians and the general public remain stuck in the traditional “we need more money to live on” mindset and criticize elements of the Budget related to that.

Iceland’s PM, Katrin Jakobsdottir, is from the Left-Green Party, which is the second-largest party in the parliamentary Althingi and is part of a three-party ruling coalition with the conservative Independent Party (the biggest party in the Althingi) and the central Progressive Party. The Left-Greens have been accused of pandering to the Independent Party and ignoring their own demands. There may be some truth in that, given that it’s a difficult situation and requires a balancing act to get matters through.

Although the Climate Action Plan has elements from six ministries in it, it was primarily the responsibility of the environment ministry and its minister, Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson. And he is from the Left-Green Party. Jakobsdottir signalled the plan as a watershed in Icelandic environmental matters, with increased funds put aside to follow up the 34 actions on the list.

The main emphasis is on alternative forms of energy for vehicles, especially land-based ones, as registration of new vehicles fuelled by diesel or petrol will not be allowed from 2030. Increased carbon sequestration by forestry and land reclamation is another emphasis, along with wetlands reclamation – maybe this will include increased funding for the Wetland Fund, which was set up earlier this year. The ministries used the services of environmental consultancy Environice during the development of the strategy.

The Action Plan is only available in Icelandic, but can be downloaded here. Mention is made of food waste in Iceland, which is the first time I’ve seen quantifiable figures, namely 120 kg per person from the catering and restaurant sector and 60 kg/person from individuals.

It’s worthy of consideration and shouldn’t be ignored.

Electric cars on the rise in the Nordics

I went to the annual meeting of Orkustofnun, the Icelandic National Energy Authority, last week. Interesting. Two of the talks focused on electric vehicles (EVs) in the Nordic countries. A comprehensive report on EVs in the Nordic countries can be downloaded here.

Sweden and Iceland have both seen great growth in electric cars, but Norway is still the leader. However, publicly available chargers have not increased in line with the sale of electric vehicles. Though the majority of electric vehicle owners charge up their cars at home – 75% in Norway and 85% in Iceland – publicly available chargers are vital for those who travel long-distance and for holiday-makers who hire cars. The EU aims for one charger for every 10 EVs by 2020, and 4 million EVs on the road by 2030 which could save 8 megatonnes of CO2 equivalents. Denmark and Finland have already reached this target and Sweden is not far behind. Norway and Iceland, however, still have some way to go.

Exemptions on registration taxes are common in the Nordic countries. This helps to make them more attractive to consumers. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are preferred in Sweden, Iceland and Finland whereas battery electric vehicles are most popular in Denmark and Norway.

A recent survey showed that 43% of Icelanders would consider buying an EV in the future. Iceland is now installing more charging points, so it is now possible to drive around the island in an electric car without worrying about running out of battery. Because Iceland’s electricity is 100% renewable, the CO2 output of an EV in Iceland is virtually none.

Nevertheless, 40% of new cars in Iceland are bought by car rental firms. Icelanders then buy these cars as nearly-new a year or two later. These companies have been reluctant to take on vehicles using alternative fuels such as EVs, and thus the supply of these cars in the near future is likely to be limited.

Education and traditional knowledge main themes of 2017 Arctic Circle Assembly

This year’s Arctic Circle Assembly, held in mid-October in Reykjavik, provided masses of information. At times there were up to 5 interesting seminars scheduled at the same time which would have been worth writing about. I had the task of writing up the event for InDepthNews, the flagship of International Press Syndicate, but it was difficult to write up the event in 1000 words or so as each session I went to could have formed the basis of an article.

Although I personally thought that the article I sent off read extremely well, I was told that it read too much like minutes of the event and my articles were usually more “journalistic”. So I rejigged it, but that meant that some bits had to come out.  The final article can be read here, but here are a few tidbits that I had to take out.

  • Some issues came up repeatably, such as pressures affecting Arctic youth; indigenous peoples, traditional knowledge and climate change; education in remote areas; sustainable development goals; energy; the South Pacific; environmental issues and the military, and fisheries in a warming climate. Some of the presentations can be viewed via the Arctic Circle homepage.
  • In July this year, the Cook Islands unanimously passed a resolution to open up a new marine reserve, the Marae Moana, to tackle environmental and economic issues such as fisheries and the new threat of sea-bed mining. The energy scenario of the Cook Islands aims for 100% renewables by 2020.
  • In her introduction to the first of the monthly discussions on implementing sustainable development goals (SDGs) in the Arctic, which will report back to the next Arctic Council meeting in September 2018, Dalee Sambo Dorough from the University of Alaska Fairbanks told participants that “We can’t preach one goal without working towards the others… Most of the SDGs are very applicable to the Arctic.”
  • Mitchell White, a Canadian Inuit now working at the Gordon Foundation, brought up an often neglected issue when he pointed out that “Third World decisions really exist at home, for instance in Inuit communities in Canada.”
  • Action appeared to be a key word at the Arctic Circle this year, as UNFCC Chief Executive Patricia Espinosa said in her speech, “The weather won’t wait for us to act,” while Peter Seligmann, Chair of Conservation International, summarized the Roadmap session by saying, “We cannot address climate change without protecting nature.”
  • Ragna Arnadottir from Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national power company, pointed out that Landsvirkjun’s newest hydropower stations had been redesigned to increase capacity by 10% before being built, in order to take advantage of increased flow due to climate change.
  • Very little research has been done recently on the environmental effects of the military, and most of the existing literature is at least 20 years old.
  • Canadian Michael Byers from University of British Columbia gave an account of the problems caused by UDMH rockot fuel and its toxic effect on three Inuit communities.

Nordic countries support UN’s sustainable development goals

I’ve just written an article about how the PMs of the 5 largest Nordic countries – Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland – have put together a joint platform called Nordic Solutions to Global Challenges, which is designed to use examples from the Nordic countries to help achieve the UN 2030 Agenda and its associated 17 sustainable development goals (SDGS).

The two-year initiative focuses on 6 flagship projects – sustainable cities, energy, climate change, food, gender and welfare – and covers most of the 17 SDGs. The Nordic Council of Ministers also co-hosted the recent World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki, but the circular economy – which is a buzzword in environmental circles nowadays and many see as a key to achieving the SDGs – is hardly mentioned in the information associated with Nordic Solutions to Global Challenges. Still, in the run-up to the Finnish forum the Nordic council produced a special online newsletter on how the circular economy can help achieve the SDGs.

Maybe I should write another article about that subject…

As an aside, Sweden has just announced that it aims to become carbon-neutral by 2045 – a lofty but worthy declaration.


Whales as ecosystem engineers

At a symposium in Reykjavik late last month, Joe Roman from the University of Vermont talked about whales as ecosystem engineers, as he called it. Commercial whaling decimated around 85% of whale stocks, and the moratorium that was adopted in 1982 has led to research opportunities as whale populations are now recovering, albeit to varying extent. I’ve just written about it, here.

Whales often feed at depth but defecate near the surface. According to Roman, this pattern promotes the movement of deep-water nutrients to the surface, where they become available to algae, which rely on the sun for photosynthesis. This whale pump can provide nitrogen, iron, and other nutrients essential to the growth of phytoplankton. These phytoplankton provide a food source for krill and other tiny marine organisms, which subsequently provide a food source for fish, whales and other marine mammals.

Redistribution of nutrients also occurs when whales migrate from high-nutrient feeding areas to low-nutrient calving areas, which he calls the Great Whale Conveyor Belt, as they continue to release fecal plumes along the way.

Furthermore, whales contribute to carbon sequestration, which is one of the main mitigation factors for combating climate change. The biological pump focuses on phytoplankton, invertebrates, and fish sinking to the bottom. When a whale carcass sinks it brings a large pulse of carbon to the seafloor and provides a unique habitat, known as a whale fall.

Carcasses change over time and undergo four different stages of decomposition. Besides sequestering carbon, whale carcasses provide a habitat for more than 60 endemic species that are not found anywhere else. This has a positive impact on biodiversity at great depths.

I remember protesting against whaling in the early 1980s, calling on the International Whaling Commission to set a moratorium on whaling. At that time, the IWC was the enemy. But the situation has obviously changed since then, and last year they adopted Resolution 2016-3 on Cetaceans and Their Contributions to Ecosystem Functioning, which acknowledges the increasing volume of scientific research data that shows that whales enhance nutrient availability for primary productivity in feeding grounds rather than decreasing fishery yields. It was proposed by Chile, with support from Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Uruguay.

A high-level Oceans Conference will be held in New York 5-9 June. Topics at the conference will include marine pollution, the blue economy, ocean acidification, increasing scientific knowledge, ocean literacy and many other aspects related to Sustainable Development Goal 14. However, although the programme covers a wide range of topics, whales are hardly mentioned. Apparently it’s a sensitive topic, which “should be dealt with at the IWC”, as Arni Finnsson from the Iceland Nature Conversation Association told me.