The US Department of Energy (DOE) revealed recently that it has awarded around $66.9m to the Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership at Montana State University (MSU), as part of a wider energy development initiative.

The huge level of funding will go towards a project that will inject a million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the sandstone rock layer beneath southwestern Wyoming.

The award marks the third and final phase of federal funding for the Big Sky partnership, which is based at MSU. It’s thought that approximately $14m of the federal money will stay on the MSU campus to pay for the university’s contribution to the project.

CO2 storage concept
Rather than let notoriously environment-harmful CO2 escape into the air, geologic sequestration injects liquefied CO2 into permeable and porous rock formations deep underground where a seal known as a cap rock keeps the CO2 permanently trapped.

The funding award from the DOE will allow the Big Sky partnership to study this concept further and begin its Phase III project, a commercial-scale, eight-year carbon sequestration study that could begin as early as next year.

That project will spend two years building infrastructure and drilling an 11,000-foot well into the sandstone rock layer west of Big Piney, Wyoming. Then, during the third and fifth year’s of the project, the partnership will inject more than a million metric tons of CO2 into the underground formation.

Previous studies have shown that the Big Sky partnership’s region, in depleted oil and gas fields and saline aquifers, could store more than 200 billion metric tons of CO2. By comparison, in 2005, human activity around the world produced 28 billion tons of CO2.

The Big Sky partnership will use the Phase III project to demonstrate that underground storage of large volumes of CO2 can be achieved economically, safely, and permanently. It also represents the opportunity to prove that carbon sequestration is a viable system for the future.

The project will study the site’s geology before injection, monitor the injection process and monitor the site after injection.

Newly announced funding will allow the partnership and MSU to test sequestration methods that are relevant to the region and develop the infrastructure, expertise and human resources needed to tackle carbon management - according to Lee Spangler, Director of the partnership and Head of MSU’s Energy Research Institute.

Describing the opportunity this represents, Spangler is quoted as saying, “It provides the opportunity to validate carbon sequestration as one of the technologies to reduce greenhouse gases and help reduce climate change, and it illustrates the potential to use the region’s vast energy resources as a path to energy independence in a climate-friendly fashion.”

Future hope
The DOE hopes that the project, and its six sister projects across the US, will provide data and know-how required for future carbon capture and sequestration operations.

Founded in 2003, the Big Sky partnership is one of seven regional partnerships supported by the DOE. In addition to MSU, three national laboratories, six regional universities and numerous federal agencies, private companies and industrial partners comprise the partnership.

Phase I of the project involved studying the geology beneath the Big Sky region, to determine its suitability and capacity for carbon sequestration and identifying human sources of carbon dioxide emissions. Phase II involves the small-scale injection of CO2 (1,000 metric tons) into a pilot well near Wallula, Wash. Drilling for the injection is expected to begin in December.

Explaining the department’s hope for the project, Jeffrey Kupfer, Deputy Secretary of Energy for the DOE, commented, “Along with our regional partner, we will be able to move carbon sequestration technology from the laboratory to large-scale field demonstrations and ultimately to the marketplace.”

“By doing so, we will help our nation meet growing energy demand and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The $66.9m from the Department of Energy will pay for a sizeable portion of the $130m project. The remainder of the project’s cost will be paid by industry partners, matching funds and other funding sources.

CO2 for the project is to be donated by Cimarex Energy Company, which is building a helium and natural gas processing plant near the injection site.