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New technology would store carbon underground

Standing near an 800-meter-deep bore hole in the ground here, Frank Schilling picked up a fist-sized cylinder of sandstone and poured water onto its surface, watching the tiny stream skitter until it suddenly disappeared inside the rock’s porous body.

The rapid absorption of the water, he said, showed how easily a much-less benign substance - carbon dioxide - could be stored once he and a team of researchers started pumping it into the half-mile-deep shaft. „Everyone assumes we’re going to store carbon dioxide inside of a cavern but the key is the tiny holes in this rock,” said Schilling, a professor of mineral and rock physics. „We’re going to press in the carbon dioxide and push out the salty water that’s already there.”

Schilling is spearheading a project near this small town about 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, west of Berlin that could change the way countries and industries store carbon dioxide, a fast-growing type of pollution, for generations to come. Several countries already bury carbon dioxide in sites off shore. At an undersea saline aquifer off Norway, Statoil buries carbon dioxide extracted from natural gas to avoid paying pollution taxes to the Norwegian government. Offshore aquifers, even though they are vast, would require enormous lengths of pipeline to carry carbon dioxide out to sea.

„But we know that there are centuries worth of space for storage onshore,” said Jeff Chapman, chief executive of the Carbon Capture & Storage Association in London, citing examples of promising sites in China, Germany, Poland and the United States. Schilling’s three-year experiment, called CO2Sink, makes Ketzin an important test of whether carbon dioxide might safely and durably be buried inland, where underground storage space could be almost endless. It involves pumping 100 tons of the gas each day into the sandstone beneath this flat Brandenburg countryside and monitoring the ecosystem for adverse results.

Shell, Vattenfall, E.ON, Statoil and RWE are contributing money and expertise to the project, which is overseen by the National Research Center for Geosciences in Germany, Schilling said. But he said that the bulk of total financing, about €30 million, or $41.5 million, comes from the European Union and Developing countries like China are burning ever-greater amounts of coal to fuel their booming economies. „The growth of coal plants is absolutely scary,” said Sanjeev Kumar, a carbon emissions expert with the environmental group WWF in Brussels.

„If we can make fossil fuels as green as we can, then we should try to get carbon capture and storage to work on a global level.” EU policy makers still are considering whether to make it mandatory for all new coal plants to incorporate the new, cleaner technologies after 2020. Environmentalists were skeptical that the new technology made underground carbon dioxide storage secure. (IHT)