South Hills lab makes tools to test carbon capture

Joe Napsha
| Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Using technology developed at a federal energy laboratory in Pittsburgh's South Hills, scientists were able to track whether carbon dioxide stored underground escaped and mixed with atmosphere's greenhouse gases, a federal researcher said.

Scientists were able to improve detection of carbon dioxide in underground storage by using ultrasensitive instruments to detect tracers added to the gas, said Brian Strazisar, a scientist at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in South Park. The movement of carbon dioxide — tested at a New Mexico pilot project — could be followed with the instruments developed at the lab in South Park.

Capturing carbon dioxide from pollution sources such as coal-fired power plants and factory smokestacks and storing it underground is seen as one way of reducing emissions that some scientists say are linked to global warming.

"We're leading the carbon capture and sequestration program for the whole federal government," said David Anna, a spokesman for the National Energy Technology Laboratory at South Park.

The lab administers $150 million spent annually to develop technology, infrastructure and regulations to implement large-scale projects to store carbon dioxide in coal, natural gas, oil and saline rock formations in the U.S. and Canada, the Department of Energy said.

From the lessons learned at the New Mexico site, researchers can determine whether carbon dioxide, with the tracers added, is seeping from where it is stored underground, said John Litynski, coordinator for partnerships working on carbon capture and storage.

"We can tell the difference between the natural carbon dioxide (in the atmosphere) and the injected" carbon dioxide, Strazisar said. That would help to eliminate some of the uncertainty surrounding carbon capture and sequestration, he added.

One of the instruments developed for the program won a R&D Magazine Top 100 award for inventions in 2009, and a patent is pending, Strazisar said. The special instruments can find the tracers underground in amounts as low as four parts per quadrillion.

"It will help us better understand where carbon dioxide is moving underground when we inject it," said Sean McCoy, manager of the Carbon Capture and Sequestration Regulatory Project at Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland. McCoy was not involved in the project in New Mexico.

The partnerships have implemented at least 25 small-scale geologic storage test sites, which are designed to demonstrate the potential to store thousands of years worth of carbon dioxide emissions underground, the Energy Department said.

There are no carbon storage sites in Pennsylvania, Strazisar said, but there are two in Ohio: near Cincinnati and south of Shadyside, which is about eight miles south of Wheeling, W.Va.

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