Expert Q&A: carbon capture and storage

With the UK government recently announcing a renewed commitment to investing in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, The Engineer spoke to experts in the field about its place in our net zero journey

Meet the panel

Ben Tze Kek - Deputy managing director, Northern Endurance Partnership
Jon Gibbins - Director at UKCCSRC
Paul Fennell - Professor of clean energy at Imperial College London
Nilay Shah - Professor of process systems engineering at Imperial College London

What role is your organisation/technology playing?

BTK: The East Coast Cluster is one of the first two carbon capture, usage, and storage clusters to be taken forward by the UK government for deployment in the late 2020s. The cluster covers Teesside and the Humber, Britain’s historic engine room and the source of nearly half of carbon emissions from UK industrial clusters.

The Cluster includes an unparalleled and diverse mix of low-carbon projects, including industrial carbon capture, low-carbon hydrogen production, negative emissions power, and power with carbon capture. All these technologies, delivered by companies with unrivalled experience in successfully delivering ambitious and world changing projects, are essential for the UK to meet its net zero targets.

JG: The UK CCS Research Community Network+ (formerly the UK CCS Research Centre) has been delivering independent and informed knowledge support for CCS since 2012.  The UKCCSRC vision for ‘Delivering Cost Effective CCS in the 2020s’, based on clusters rather than stand-alone projects, launched in 2016 after the previous CCUS Competition failed, is now UK government policy. 

To support CCS development and deployment, the UKCCSRC networks over 1,500 academic, industry, government and regulator CCS stakeholders with a range of services including Flexible Funding calls, monthly webinars and Best Available Techniques.

PF & NS: We are developing new technologies to capture CO2 from industry, hydrogen production from natural gas or biomass, power production, and the air.  We are also conducting consultancy to improve existing technologies, and we are modelling the operation and integration of CCS technologies into plant, local and global infrastructure.

Which industries will benefit most from CCS?

BTK: The strength of the East Coast Cluster, and in turn CCS, is its diversity and scale. The CCS projects within the East Coast Cluster fall into four major categories – Bioenergy, Industrial, Hydrogen and Power – with each project delivering different but equally important decarbonisation benefits for the industry in meeting the UK’s net zero commitment with pace and urgency.

Alongside the decarbonisation of industry, the East Coast Cluster will bring an influx of green jobs, skills development and supply chain benefits. The cluster aims to create and support an average of 25,000 jobs per year between 2023 and 2050.

JG: This is like asking which industries benefit from sewage pipe networks and water treatment systems. Stopping throwing wastes into the nearest watercourse added costs for most industries but was something that had to be done for the common good, and these costs could be passed through to customers who then benefited from a better environment.  Building, and latterly operating, sewage systems has provided work for some industries but most industries neither benefited nor lost. Provided there is a level playing field for imports – for example, they get hit by a CBAM (carbon border adjustment mechanism) – and that measures are taken to ensure reasonable CO2 transport and storage access for all industries regardless of location, the same will apply for CCS.

Researchers at Imperial are developing new CCS technologies as well as aiming to improve existing technology - Imperial College London

PF & NS: Cement, Ammonia and Iron and Steel will be key industries, since they intrinsically produce CO2 as part of their operation. In particular for cement, the emission is unavoidable unless CCS is added. The renewables industry will benefit from the ability of power generators to produce dispatchable power, allowing electricity to be produced when the sun isn’t shining or it isn’t windy. Finally, all producers which have very expensive costs to capture CO2 will benefit from the ability of humanity to capture CO2 from the air – it sets a cap on the maximum cost of CO2 avoidance.

Where should the government’s priorities lie with CCS compared with other ‘clean’ tech?

BTK: The Committee on Climate Change has consistently stated that CCS is a necessity, not an option to meet net zero for the UK. Equal commitment and focus on CCS together with other clean tech by government is key to ensuring delivery at pace.

The development of Teesside and the Humber as a globally competitive climate-friendly hub for industry and innovation is complementary to the government’s goal for other technologies. For example, the development of power plants with carbon capture will help to enable greater deployment of renewable energy such as wind and solar by providing flexible, dispatchable low carbon electricity generation which backs up intermittent renewables – crucial for periods when the wind isn’t blowing, and the sun isn’t shining.

All technologies must be developed, and at breakneck speed, to avoid climate catastrophe

Paul Fennell - Imperial College London

JG: ‘Renewables’ covers a lot of technologies and so does ‘CCS’. The government needs to take a hand in deploying CO2 transport and storage infrastructure, and to help cover the unavoidable first-of-a-kind risks for some reference capture projects.  Beyond that, the government’s priorities should be to deliver net zero while ensuring reliable and affordable energy supplies. If CCS, including direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS) which can address any source of CO2 emissions, can meet those three requirements in ways that are cheaper or better than other alternatives, then it should be encouraged to happen.

PF & NS: This isn’t an either/or. All technologies must be developed, and at breakneck speed, to avoid climate catastrophe.  Personally, I would target the difficult to abate sectors first (cement, iron and steel, chemicals), and after this continue with power.  Capturing CO2 from the air is an important technology to have in the future (and it is important to continue to innovate in this area), but we have to abate the large-scale emissions FIRST.

What are the key engineering challenges around CCS that will need to be considered as the tech is more widely implemented?

BTK: CCUS is a well-established technology with more than 25 years of experience in successful CO2 storage operations. Globally, CCUS deployment has tripled over the last decade and CO2 storage operations have successfully been carried out in Norway for more than 20 years.


CCUS is a well-established technology with more than 25 years of experience in successful CO2 storage operations


On Teesside, two consortiums of engineering, carbon capture licensors, power providers and EPC contractors have been selected to participate in a Front End Engineering Design (FEED) competition. Both groups are working on comprehensive FEED packages and will ultimately submit Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) proposals for the execution phase. Full chain delivery of industrial-scale projects like ECC from capture through to transportation and storage coupled with learning through implementation and operations are the crucial steps to ensure wide scale deployment.

JG: To date, the biggest perceived challenge has been that proposed CCS projects will fail to get enough government support to make them commercially viable. But now the challenge is making sure that projects are delivered successfully.  Simple measures, drawing on past experience, to help ensure this are:

For solvent-based post-combustion capture technologies, to be able to change to another solvent if necessary – the barriers to this are commercial not technical

For ‘disruptive’ technologies using unproven high-temperature fuel processing or rotating machinery, don’t scale up by more than a factor of two and verify long-term operation before doing so

For storage projects, make sure that multiple, independent CO2 storage options are available

PF & NS: There are no engineering challenges to a technology (separation of gas mixtures) that is more than 100 years old, and has been used to store CO2 in the North Sea and other parts of the world for over 20 years.  The challenges are finance, ambition, management of shared infrastructure and political will.