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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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U researchers get $2.7 million for carbon dioxide work

By Chris Mumford

If U professor Brian McPherson and his team of scientists and researchers can prove the viability of carbon sequestration in seven months with a $2.7 million grant, they will be awarded $400 million to turn their research into a centerpiece of the new “green” economy.

“The $2.7 million is simply a license to compete,” said McPherson, who teaches civil and environmental engineering.

Carbon sequestration, the process of diverting carbon dioxide emissions from a variety of industrial plants to underground storage reservoirs, has been around for some time, but McPherson and his colleagues hope to expand and improve upon existing knowledge and technology to create a full-fledged industry for carbon dioxide capture.

Roughly half of the $2.7 million and the $400 million contract that awaits McPherson and his team, if they succeed, comes from the federal stimulus package passed by Congress in February. The remainder is provided by private industry as part of a federal funds-matching program.

McPherson said the $400 million project would create some 1,000 jobs at minimum, with further expansion possible as industries grow to accommodate the pipelines and geological work associated with carbon sequestration.

“Carbon storage is not going to be cheap; it’s going to be very expensive,” McPherson said.

But carbon sequestration holds a key advantage over rival “green” initiatives, and oil companies are willing to pay good money for carbon dioxide.

Oil companies are usually only able to extract about 20 percent of the oil in a given well. In order to extract the maximum amount of oil possible, the wells can be flooded with carbon dioxide to free an additional 20 percent, and the process can be repeated using water to obtain another 20 percent.

McPherson said this means that at current market prices, oil companies are willing to pay between $25 and $30 per ton for carbon dioxide, which can already be found in vast natural underground reserves in Utah and Colorado. McPherson and company hope to create artificial reservoirs and fill them with carbon dioxide from polluting industries to be sold for the same purpose, but a great deal of work must done to make that a real possibility.

“There’s an extra focused lens on the funds to make sure that the public is comfortable with what we’re doing,” McPherson said, referring to the increased scrutiny of his work that comes with using stimulus dollars. He said his team will be asked to make frequent, detailed reports of their progress, which he sees as reasonable despite the fact that doing so could slow the pace of research.

McPherson and his team will be studying the particular geological features of natural carbon dioxide reservoirs found in Utah and the surrounding region, using that information to select suitable storage sites in Kansas where the team hopes to store carbon dioxide captured from fertilizer, cement and ethanol plants that have already signed on for the project.

The group will test different carbon dioxide capture technologies, accounting for the variances in emissions between industries, and will also draw up plans for a pipeline to transport captured gas to the selected storage sites.

“The luxury of Kansas is that there are several of these novel sources concentrated in close proximity, so we can tackle all these sources at once,” McPherson said.

As a matter of course, the group will also be tasked with exploring the potential dangers associated with carbon sequestration, though McPherson said he is confident that the practice is safe based on the research he’s already conducted. Gaining a clearer understanding of potential hazards is a means for making the industry more insurable, he said, which is a crucial step toward turning sequestration into a commercial industry.

McPherson said he is excited about the new project and initial $2.7 million grant, but a lot of hard work remains in adding to a number of other projects in which he’s already involved.

“When I decided to teach university, I never thought it would get so crazy, so busy,” he said.

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