Gas: Fueling the future

By Nancy Bazilchuk
January 29, 2007

The headlines are clear and urgent: humankind must curb the continued production of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide to avoid catastrophic global warming. Recent research has shown that an additional warming of 1 degree will unacceptably raise sea levels and cause mass species extinctions. The only long-term solution for the problem, scientists say, is to sharply kerb CO2 emissions as soon as possible.


At the Gas Technology Center, a cooperative research effort between the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and SINTEF, Scandinavia’s largest independent research organization, researchers are hard at work on solving this very problem -- capturing CO2 and getting rid of it.

New technologies for new problems

“Norway has in the last 20 to 30 years developed technology that’s suitable for environmentally friendly and cost-effective exploration of natural gas resources in a harsh offshore environment,” said Olav Bolland, an NTNU professor of energy and process engineering and a co-leader of the Center’s systems technology group. At the same time, he says, “requirements for emissions to air and water are moving toward the ‘zero’ level. These requirements call for highly sophisticated new technologies.”

To that end, NTNU and SINTEF researchers at the Center are looking at everything from harnessing chemicals or chemical processes that can capture CO2 from fossil fuel power plant emissions to developing the technologies needed to redesign gas-fired power plants to prevent CO2 from being released in flue gases in the first place.

“The Gas Technology Center can assemble world class researchers and knowledge along the whole CO2 value chain, from capture, to transport, to use and storage of CO2,” says Nils Røkke, the SINTEF director of the centre and vice president of Gas Technology for SINTEF. “We are thus key R&D providers in many European Commission FP6 R&D programmes.”

Environmentally friendly natural gas

While controlling CO2 as a by-product of fossil fuel combustion is the most highly visible aspect of the Center’s work, researchers are also exploring numerous other projects in line with the group’s larger overarching mission to help society use natural gas for energy without harming the environment.

“The GTC covers gas technologies from the separation of gas at its landfall, to the processing and value creation from natural gas, including gas transport, use of gas for power generation or for other processes – and to put the carbon back into the oil or gas fields or deep saline aquifers for permanent storage,” Røkke says. Roughly 250 researchers and professors work in association with the Center.

Nearly 1000 researchers on hand

But with record-breaking heat waves and monster hurricanes in the Atlantic, it is CO2 capture and storage that command the biggest headlines these days. In June, 2006, the Gas Technology Center’s leadership research in CO2 capture and storage was recognized when the 8th International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies was held at NTNU. The conference was the largest-ever gathering of experts on the problem, with roughly 1000 researchers from 47 countries presenting about 450 papers and posters. And it was no accident that the conference was at NTNU, said John Gale, manager of communications and development for the IEA Greenhouse Gas R&D programme, which oversees the bi-annual conference.

“Norway is very much ahead of the field,” in greenhouse gas emissions capture and storage, Gale said, observing that two of six large pilot CO2 storage projects were Norwegian. “Norway’s supplementary research has been to a degree ground-breaking. Norway is getting on and doing it, which is quite impressive.”

Test projects in Europe

While Sleipner and Snøhvit are the two large high-profile Norwegian gas fields where CO2 is being removed from gas and reinjected for storage into subsea formations, Gas Technology Center researchers are also deeply involved in other test projects around Europe.

CASTOR is a 16 million euro European Commission pilot CO2 capture and storage project located at a power plant in Denmark, where the Gas Technology Center’s research is at work. The pilot plant started operation in March 2006, and is testing new solvents, new membrane contactors, new process flow sheets, and integration methods to draw the small concentrations of CO2 out of the power plant’s enormous flue gas emissions.

NTNU researcher Hallvard Svendsen is a professor in the university’s Department of Chemical Engineering who has collaborated with SINTEF Materials and Chemistry on the CASTOR project. His work focuses on analysing the performance of various chemicals for absorption of CO2, to find the perfect balance between the capture of CO2 and the efficiency of the overall process. “The absorbent determines to a large degree the energy required for the CO2 capture, and therefore the energy lost in power production,” he said.

A 10 % goal

Gale says CASTOR and research like Svendsen’s address one of the trickiest technological problems facing researchers hoping to kerb CO2 emissions from existing power plants. The goal of the project is to develop the pilot technology to the point where fully 10 % of Europe’s emissions can be captured and stored using the technologies developed in the programme.

“You have to find a way to economically treat large volumes of (flue) gas,” Gale said. “But the advantage is that it allows large scale reductions to be made quite quickly with the existing infrastructure – we’re not talking about stripping everything out and rebuilding everything in the next 30 years, and that is why we feel it is so attractive.”

Hydrogen technology under development

SINTEF is also deeply involved in coordinating the first phase of an European Commission project called Dynamis, where scientists and researchers from 11 European nations and 28 European companies and institutions are evaluating the siting and technology for Europe’s first large-scale fossil fuel plant that will supply both electricity and hydrogen – and with CO2 capture and storage.

“This is an area where we believe we can grow substantially and play an important international role,” Bolland said. “The Gas Technology Center is the strongest research centre in the world in this area.”

Gas Technology Center

The largest centre for gas technology research and education in Norway, and a cooperative effort between NTNU and SINTEF, Scandinavia's largest independent research institution. Founded in 2003.
Gas Technology Centre website

Bjarne Foss, NTNU; Nils Røkke SINTEF

Number of researchers: 150
Number of PhD students: 100

International partners:
The Gas Technology Center is involved in numerous European Commission research programmes, including DYNAMIS, a hydrogen/electricity production project with CO2 capture and storage; ULCLOS, ultra low steel-making; and CASTOR, CO2 from capture to storage. The Center has also signed a research agreement with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in August 2006 to work jointly on problems related to natural gas production, CO2 capture and storage, and hydrogen production.

Bjarne Foss