Storing CO2 underground could help the fight against climate change. But cost is a big problem

  • At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers are looking at something called carbon capture, utilization and storage.
  • One researcher describes carbon capture, utilization and storage as "one of the weapons in our arsenal in the fight against climate change."

Despite the emergence of renewable energy sources such as large-scale wind and solar power, our planet is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

In the U.S., for example, the Energy Information Administration states that petroleum, natural gas and coal accounted for roughly 77.6 percent of primary energy production in 2017.

It's within this context that, in some quarters, the idea of carbon capture and storage, or CCS, has gained traction.

The European Commission — the EU's executive arm — describes CCS as a set of technologies that look to capture, transport and store carbon dioxide (CO2) that's emitted by industrial facilities and power plants. The idea is to stop CO2 from reaching the atmosphere by storing it in geological formations underground, according to the Commission.

Uptake of CCS technology has not been widespread, however. For its part, the Commission notes that, "at current low carbon prices, companies do not see an economic rationale" for investing in CCS.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), researchers are looking at something called carbon capture, utilization and storage. This places an emphasis on not only the storage but re-use of CO2 emissions.

At MIT's Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) Center, researchers are undertaking work to cut the cost of carbon capture, enable secure carbon storage options and develop "carbon utilization opportunities."

The center describes carbon capture utilization and storage technologies as holding "great promise for ameliorating the effects of excess emissions" through the capture and safe storage of carbon dioxide.

When it comes to carbon dioxide reduction and utilization, the Center is researching processes such as electrochemical CO2 fixation.

It describes this as employing "state-of-the-art catalytic methods" to use low-carbon renewable electricity to help convert CO2 into a range of assets such as "fuels, commodity chemicals, and critical materials."

Howard J. Herzog is a senior research engineer at the MIT Energy Initiative. "Climate change is a very difficult problem to solve and we're going to need as many technologies as possible to help us solve it at an affordable price," he told CNBC's "Sustainable Energy."

Carbon capture, utilization and storage was "one of the weapons in our arsenal in the fight against climate change," he added.

While Herzog was keen to emphasize the potential of CCUS, he also explained that there were challenges to be overcome.

"The reason CCUS is not widely available today is that we don't have policies in place to reduce our emissions of CO2 to the atmosphere," he said.

"It's always going to be cheaper to put CO2 into the atmosphere than to capture and store it. So, until we have policies in place to address climate change … It's going to be very slow going for CCUS."

Looking forward, Herzog said that he envisioned a future for CCUS where policy is put in place to incentivize the technology to the marketplace.

"A real byproduct of this (is) it will really spur innovation," he added. "I see new technologies coming into the field, things we may not even have thought about today that will reduce cost and help us address climate change in a more effective manner."