Program pumps liquefied carbon dioxide underground

The Boise property is the site for the carbon dioxide sequestration program that began earlier this month.

The Boise property is the site for the carbon dioxide sequestration program that began earlier this month. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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The Players:

Batelle and PNNL: Columbus, Ohio,-based Battelle is the world’s largest nonprofit independent research and development organization. Battelle manages or co-manages several national laboratories for the U.S. Department of Energy, including Richland-based Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. PNNL has been managed by Battelle since the lab’s inception in 1965. It employs about 4,500 people and has a $1 billion annual budget.

Boise Inc.: The Boise-based public company manufactures packaging and paper products. Its products include linerboard, corrugating medium, corrugated containers and sheets, protective packaging products, imaging papers for the office and home, printing and converting papers and label and release papers. The Wallula mill is one of the largest employers in Walla Walla County. In 2011 — for which the most recent data is available from the Port of Walla Walla — it was the seventh largest company based on staffing. That same year it was the largest taxpayer in Walla Walla County, too.

Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership: The program, led by Montana State University, is one of seven partnerships established under the U.S. Department of Energy’s Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership program. The Big Sky region covers Eastern Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. It relies on engineering, geology, chemistry, biology, and GIS technology, plus economics to develop approaches for geologic and terrestrial carbon storage.

Praxair Inc.: The Connecticut-based company is the largest industrial gases company in North and South America. It produces, sells and distributes atmospheric process and specialty gases, as well as high-performance surface coatings. Its products, services and technologies are used in aerospace, chemicals, food and beverage, electronics, energy, healthcare, manufacturing, metals and other industries.

WALLULA — The Boise Inc. paper mill may be recognizable for the puffy clouds that billow from its steam stacks every day. But if scientists have their way, the property could become known across the globe for something that’s happening under ground there right now.

For the past week, a steady flow of pressurized carbon dioxide has been injected 2,700 feet below the property in the world’s first known field test of carbon storage in deep basalt formations.

Battelle researchers based at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are finally getting the chance to carry out a years-in-the-making test they believe could hold an answer to the reduction of greenhouse gases.

The injection process started July 17 and will continue over the next two to three weeks. Every day about 40 metric tons of liquefied carbon dioxide are pumped about a half a mile under the ground surface. About 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide will be sent down before the well is capped off and monitoring begins.

If the liquid carbon dioxide reacts with water and basalt the way it has in numerous laboratory tests, the result could be a solution to permanently store carbon dioxide, the gas scientists most associate with climate change.

“We’re just tickled to finally be at this point to be able to share,” said Gretchen Hund, who has managed stakeholder involvement for Battelle on the project, during an open house event Friday.

The process is exactly what had been planned for Port of Walla Walla-owned property just across U.S. Highway 12 about six years ago. But when proponents of a potential coal-fueled power plant hitched their development wagon to results of the science experiment, local residents became fired up. The experiment got as far as seismic testing there before the Port and Battelle parted ways on the project.

The hiccup was one of many, Battelle scientist Pete McGrail said Friday. The partnership with Boise Inc. and use of the company’s property was a solution to concerns about the use of public property and links to pending power plants. But after the well drilling and site characterization study at Boise in 2009, the permitting process took a little more than a year. After that the work stalled another 18 months due to budget constraints, McGrail said.

About 80 percent of the $12 million project has been funded through the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory. Other financial contributors that came forward are Schlumberger, Royal Dutch Shell, Boise Inc. and Portland General Electric.

The area is prime for the experiment because of the basalt layers that run at depths exceeding 8,000 feet. The tiers were created from lava flows that cooled on top of one another like a layer cake. Between impenetrable layers are porous ones that will hold the liquid carbon dioxide, which will be sealed by the thicker flows to it from seaping out on top.

The landscape is specific to this region, said Lee Spangler, energy research program director at Montana State University where the Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership is led. The partnership is one of seven created by the Department of Energy to find safe ways to permanently store greenhouse gas emissions. Spangler estimates the six-state region covered by Big Sky contains up to 300 years of storage space.

But the implications, he, said are way farther reaching. Similar basalt formations also exist in China and India, where energy use is rapidly increasing, Spangler said.

The potential global implications were a factor in the decision to host the project, Boise Inc. officials said. The project encapsulates Boise’s own mission to reduce its environmental footprint, said Rich Garber, the company’s environmental director. Since 2004 the company has reduced emissions at its manufacturing plants by 27 percent.

“This collaborative effort with Battelle is an additional opportunity for us to build on that progress and demonstrate our commitment toward continuous environmental improvement,” he said in a prepared statement.

The project likely wouldn’t have immediate implications for Boise, spokesman Destry Henderson said. He said the investment would likely be prohibitive without a well-defined carbon-trading system established. “It’s certainly on our radar though,” he said. “And without this, those questions are moot.”

In retrospect, the site couldn’t be more ideal, McGrail said.

Located at a paper mill off the highway and with access to a rail spur it could be a direct link for unloading pressurized carbon dioxide via rail car.

“There’s no other field site in the world with a situation like that,” he said.

McGrail said the concept for the field test was born about 10 years ago. He and fellow scientist Todd Schaef were working on a “very, very small lab research and development project” where they exposed Columbia River basalt to carbon dioxide and water in pressure vessels.

When they opened the first of the vessels, they were stunned to see how much the carbon dioxide had mineralized, coating the basalt with calcium carbonate, or limestone.

“These little ideas that start small and get bigger and bigger — hopefully one of them, maybe the one behind us, will end up changing the world,” McGrail said to a crowd of stakeholders and media gathered to see the process.

The well is cordoned off. Next to the well are four surface skid tanks that supply the carbon dioxide through hoses leading to the hole. The supply is replenished as tanker trucks offload new product, said Battelle hydrogeologist Frank Spane.

The carbon dioxide, provided by partner Praxair Inc., starts from the tanks at 0 degrees Fahrenheit and is heated up to 82 degrees, he said. Compression in the injection process brings it up another 30 degrees.

Probes and censors inside the reservoir provide readouts that are checked at least once a day. A tracer is injected with the carbon dioxide.

Periodic temperature and depth profiles determine exactly where the carbon dioxide is going, Spane said.

Although large-scale carbon injection has reportedly raised concerns among geologists about the trigger of small earthquakes, McGrail told The Seattle Times the amount involved in this project — the equivalent of about three hours worth of emissions from a typical power plant — is too small to warrant fear.

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