Addressing energy security, climate change: UTP’s carbon capture, utilisation and storage R&D to lead the way

The Natural Gas-CO2 Flow Loop Pilot Plant at UTP.

Successful carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) projects require the right expertise and technology, and Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS’ (UTP) Institute of Contaminant Management (ICM) does not just provide these expertise and cutting-edge facilities, but the research and development (R&D) activities focused on the oil and gas industry also aim to address industry pain points and offer solutions towards achieving decarbonisation goals.

The institute’s focus areas include pre-treatment and carbon capture technologies of contaminants (chiefly carbon dioxide or CO2) from natural gas, utilisation of the contaminant to produce value-added products like syngas, right through to the transportation of contaminated natural gas through the pipeline.

“Carbon capture is not a new technology but what makes ICM’s research and expertise unique is our focus on conducting research and developing efficient technologies to monetise natural gas from unexplored gas fields. At ICM, unlike CCUS research elsewhere in the world, we’re focused on carbon capture technologies that enable the removal or separation of CO2 from natural gas. Our services are mostly on technology development for CCUS, asset integrity, corrosion analysis, material testing, process safety and process optimisation specifically to address the pain points from industries,” said ICM Director Prof Dr Azmi Mohd Shariff.

Against a landscape of depleting natural gas resources and that some 40% of gas reserves around the world contain an estimated 71 trillion cubic metres (2,500 trillion cubic feet, tcf) of gas with high levels of CO2, the CCUS research conducted at ICM is certainly of significance not only to address energy security but also tackle greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impact of climate change.

Prof Dr Azmi: “Carbon capture is not a new technology but what makes ICM’s research and expertise unique is our focus on conducting research and developing efficient technologies to monetise natural gas.”Prof Dr Azmi: “Carbon capture is not a new technology but what makes ICM’s research and expertise unique is our focus on conducting research and developing efficient technologies to monetise natural gas.”

The history of CCUS can be traced to about 50 years to the gas processing plants in Texas in the USA. The potential of CCUS to mitigate climate change has also been recognised for decades.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) defines CCUS as a “suite of technologies that involves the capture of CO2 from large point sources, including power generation or industrial facilities that use either fossil fuels or biomass for fuel. The CO2 can also be captured directly from the atmosphere. If not being used on-site, the captured CO2 is compressed and transported by pipeline, ship, rail or truck to be used in a range of applications or injected into deep geological formations (including depleted oil and gas reservoirs or saline formations) which trap the CO2 for permanent storage.”

Although CCUS holds tremendous value as a climate change mitigation option, the deployment of CCUS technologies has so far been slow. The IEA estimates that “annual CCUS investment has consistently accounted for less than 0.5% of global investment in clean energy and efficiency technologies”.

But as climate change concerns intensify and economies around the world progress towards stronger climate targets, CCUS has been gaining momentum.

The national oil corporation, Petroliam Nasional Bhd (PETRONAS) for example, views CCUS as a vital solution in transitioning to a net zero carbon future. PETRONAS has said that to realise its aspiration of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, it is employing CCUS technology in its high CO2 fields and aims to further capture and store CO2 emissions and deploy maturing technologies for onshore processing plants to utilise and convert CO2 into valuable products.

That CCUS technologies have tremendous potential to address the issue of carbon emissions is undeniable, said Azmi, but what’s equally exciting is the potential to monetise yet-untapped natural gas resources.

“We’re currently faced with a scenario of rapidly depleting natural gas fields, in part because of the high CO2 content in many of the resources. In Malaysia there are 0.4 trillion cubic metres (13 tcf) of high CO2 natural gas that, if treated, has the potential of meeting the country’s natural gas needs for 25 years,” he said.

With the depletion of so-called sweet gas (which contain trace amounts up to 10% CO2), deploying technologies that can monetise contaminated gas resources has certainly become an imperative of oil and gas companies as well as economies to meet energy demands.

Azmi (second from the right) with PETRONAS Integrated Regional Satellite Office (IRSO) West Coast during a site visit at the Natural Gas CO2 Flow Loop Pilot PlantAzmi (second from the right) with PETRONAS Integrated Regional Satellite Office (IRSO) West Coast during a site visit at the Natural Gas CO2 Flow Loop Pilot Plant

High CO2 contaminated gas generally contains anything from about 40-80% of CO2 as well as other contaminants such as hydrogen sulphide. Carbon capture or the process of removing the contaminants, which take place at the offshore platforms, reduces the level of CO2 around 8-15%, allowing this gas to be fed to plants for further processing as sales gas.

Working hand-in-hand with partners such as PETRONAS, PTT Exploration and Production, Thailand’s national upstream company, and Carigali-PTTEPI Operating Company (CPOC), the institute’s research has, to date, yielded a suite of carbon capture or separation technologies.

These include Hollow Fibre Membrane Prediction Programme (HFMPP), CO2 Flow Loop and Smart Crack Technology Instrument (SCTi). These technologies have been tailor-made specifically to meet the unique needs of ICM’s industry partners and the characteristics of natural gas in the region’s hydrocarbon basins.

“These are not one-size-fits-all solutions – the technologies that are developed depend on a variety of factors such as the concentration of gas, temperature, pressure as well as cost considerations,” says Azmi.

To date, the technologies developed have not only been deployed in industry but have also gained global recognition. The HFMPP, which is used by Carigali-PTTEPI Operating Company and PETRONAS to predict the life span and separation performance of hollow fibre membrane system for gas and liquid under varying industrial parameters was the winner of the Gold Medal at the 2012 British Invention Show as well as the Gold Medal winner at International Invention, Innovation and Technology Exhibition (ITEX 2012).

The CO2 Flow Loop, which has the capability to test any capture technologies that can accommodate wide CO2 concentrations was also an IChemE Malaysia Award 2019 winner. SCTi, a continuous monitoring system for identification and classification of mechanical damages and severity leading to prediction of structural integrity and risk assessment has also bagged several accolades including the Gold at ITEX 2021.

As for the utilisation of the contaminant for the creation of value-added products, Azmi conceded that the path is rather challenging.

“There’s still much research to be done in this area and given the high energy requirements there is also the question of economics,” he added. For now, the technology already exists for the production of syngas (by combining CO2 and hydrocarbons), which is a source of raw material for the production of methane and synthetic fuel.

“Some of the CCUS technologies developed to date are already at the pre-commercialisation stage while others are currently under study to ensure their reliability but what is certain is that in the last 10 years, R&D in CCUS has moved beyond the fundamental research stage,” he says, adding that at the multidisciplinary institute some 50 researchers are working on various CCUS projects.

The ICM also boasts state-of-the-art lab facilities located at, among others, the CO2 Research Centre (CO2RES), Centre for Corrosion Research (CCR) and Centre of Research in Ionic Liquid (CORIL) offering one-stop fundamental research to pre-commercialisation testing of the technologies developed.

“We’re able to conduct computer simulations, bench scale and pilot lab studies as well as pre-commercialisation testing based on industrial requirements,” Azmi said.

For him and the ICM team, these are exciting times for CCUS. The potential, he added, is tremendous especially if one considers the use of CCUS in tackling emissions of energy assets such as coal-fired or biogas plants.

Continued R&D and innovations on CCUS are therefore central to the energy industry and the country’s clean energy transition. Having grown its revenue from RM15mil a year to more than RM40mil in 2022, Azmi is confident that ICM’s industry collaborations, research strengths and insight gained over the years give it that edge to drive this new era for CCUS.

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