RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There's been a lot of experimenting with ways to capture carbon dioxide released by power plants. It is an expensive process, and then there's the problem of where to store the gas, which can be used in everything from soft drinks to fire extinguishers. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing that one Chinese power plant is making the technology work, at least on a small scale.
ANTHONY KUHN: This power plant in Southeast Beijing provides 10 percent of the capital's electricity. It belongs to China's state-owned Huaneng Company, which produces 10 percent of China's electricity. Xu Shisen is the head engineer with a Huaneng subsidiary that designed and built the carbon-capture facility at this plant. He explains how it works.
Mr. XU SHISEN (Head Engineer with Huaneng subsidiary): (Through Translator) The flue gasses come out here and go into that absorption tower there. Eighty-five percent of the CO2 is removed and absorbed into a chemical solvent. The CO2 is then purified, cooled and compressed into a liquid, and stored in this tank. A truck comes up and hooks up to this pipe and removes the CO2, just like filling a car with gas.
KUHN: Huaneng sells the carbon dioxide to another company that resells it as industrial-grade CO2 for use in making dry ice or filling fire extinguishers. Or it further purifies it, and sells it as food-grade CO2 to put the fizz in soda pop and carbonated beverages.
This effervescent solution is, of course, only a temporary one. The carbon dioxide is only stored until someone releases it. For example…
(Soundbite of opening pop top, pouring soda)
KUHN: The other problem is that power plants emit far more carbon dioxide than commercial markets can use. Huaneng's plant can only extract and process less than 1 percent of the 5 million tons of CO2 it emits every year.
But just selling that tiny amount of CO2, Xu points out, covers the cost of capturing the carbon, not including Huaneng's original investment.
Mr. SHISEN: (Through Translator) And this way, at least there's no need to manufacture more CO2 from scratch, because that would itself consume more energy and produce more emissions. In the final analysis, we're still reducing emissions this way.
KUHN: Huaneng Company's pilot project, Xu says, has been a success since it began last summer. It's the first of its kind in China. But Huaneng is building a second one in Shanghai, and other power plants around the country are inquiring about starting their own pilot programs.
Huaneng got advice on the project from the Australian government's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. Jim Smitham leads CSIRO's research into low-emission energy technologies.
Dr. JIM SMITHAM (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization): The Chinese program is quite important on a world stage because China is a very large user of coal for electricity production. And it's getting an early-stage advantage of getting this familiarity with the technology at small scale, and they're already thinking of how to apply it at bigger scales and for other applications.
KUHN: Huaneng is also working on a more effective form of carbon capture technology. In that process, the coal used in the power plant is first turned into gas. Some of the CO2 and pollutants are removed from the gas before it's even burned. Xu says Huaneng is also talking with Chinese state-owned petroleum companies.
Mr. SHISEN: (Through Translator) The next step is to inject the CO2 into oil fields. Some of the CO2 will be stored there. Some will come out with the oil which is pushed to the surface. That CO2 can be recaptured and reused. That way, we can both store CO2 and extract more oil from our oil fields.
KUHN: Carbon-capture projects like Huaneng's are still a long way from being able to significantly reduce China's emissions. But as Jim Smitham points out, such projects send an important political message: that China cares and is doing something about it.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.