Two Rice University researchers just received DOE funding for carbon storage research. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

Two researchers at Rice University are digging into how soil is formed with hopes to better understand carbon storage and potential new methods for combating climate change.

Backed by a three-year grant from the Department of Energy, the research is led by Mark Torres, an assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences; and Evan Ramos, a postdoctoral fellow in the Torres lab. Co-investigators include professors and scientists with the Brown University, University of Massachusetts Amherst and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

According to a release from Rice, the team aims to investigate the processes that allow soil to store roughly three times as much carbon as organic matter compared to Earth's atmosphere.

“Maybe there’s a way to harness Earth’s natural mechanisms of sequestering carbon to combat climate change,” Torres said in a statement. “But to do that, we first have to understand how soils actually work.”

The team will analyze samples collected from different areas of the East River watershed in Colorado. Prior research has shown that rivers have been great resources for investigating chemical reactions that have taken place as soil is formed. Additionally, research supports that "clay plays a role in storing carbon derived from organic sources," according to Rice.

"We want to know when and how clay minerals form because they’re these big, platy, flat minerals with a high surface area that basically shield the organic carbon in the soil," Ramos said in the statement. "We think they protect that organic carbon from breakdown and allow it to grow in abundance.”

Additionally, the researchers plan to create a model that better quantifies the stabilization of organic carbon over time. According to Torres, the model could provide a basis for predicting carbon dioxide changes in Earth's atmosphere.

"We’re trying to understand what keeps carbon in soils, so we can get better at factoring in their role in climate models and render predictions of carbon dioxide changes in the atmosphere more detailed and accurate,” Torres explained in the statement.

The DOE and Rice have partnered on a number of projects related to the energy transition in recent months. Last week, Rice announced that it would host the Carbon Management Community Summit this fall, sponsored by the DOE, and in partnership with the city of Houston and climate change-focused multimedia company Climate Now.

In July the DOE announced $100 million in funding for its SCALEUP program at an event for more than 100 energy innovators at the university.

Rice also recently opened its 250,000-square-foot Ralph S. O’Connor Building for Engineering and Science. The state-of-the-art facility is the new home for four key research areas at Rice: advanced materials, quantum science and computing, urban research and innovation, and the energy transition.

The world can't keep on with what it's doing and expect to reach its goals when it comes to climate change. Radical innovations are needed at this point, writes Scott Nyquist. Photo via Getty Images

Only radical innovation can get the world to its climate goals, says this Houston expert

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Almost 3 years ago, McKinsey published a report arguing that limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels was “technically achievable,” but that the “math is daunting.” Indeed, when the 1.5°C figure was agreed to at the 2015 Paris climate conference, the assumption was that emissions would peak before 2025, and then fall 43 percent by 2030.

Given that 2022 saw the highest emissions ever—36.8 gigatons—the math is now more daunting still: cuts would need to be greater, and faster, than envisioned in Paris. Perhaps that is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted March 20 (with “high confidence”) that it was “likely that warming will exceed 1.5°C during the 21st century.”

I agree with that gloomy assessment. Given the rate of progress so far, 1.5°C looks all but impossible. That puts me in the company of people like Bill Gates; the Economist; the Australian Academy of Science, and apparently many IPCC scientists. McKinsey has estimated that even if all countries deliver on their net zero commitments, temperatures will likely be 1.7°C higher in 2100.

In October, the UN Environment Program argued that there was “no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place” and called for “an urgent system-wide transformation” to change the trajectory. Among the changes it considers necessary: carbon taxes, land use reform, dietary changes in which individuals “consume food for environmental sustainability and carbon reduction,” investment of $4 trillion to $6 trillion a year; applying current technology to all new buildings; no new fossil fuel infrastructure. And so on.

Let’s assume that the UNEP is right. What are the chances of all this happening in the next few years? Or, indeed, any of it? President Obama’s former science adviser, Daniel Schrag, put it this way: “ Who believes that we can halve global emissions by 2030?... It’s so far from reality that it’s kind of absurd.”

Having a goal is useful, concentrating minds and organizing effort. And I think that has been the case with 1.5°C, or recent commitments to get to net zero. Targets create a sense of urgency that has led to real progress on decarbonization.

The 2020 McKinsey report set out how to get on the 1.5°C pathway, and was careful to note that this was not a description of probability or reality but “a picture of a world that could be.” Three years later, that “world that could be” looks even more remote.

Consider the United States, the world’s second-largest emitter. In 2021, 79 percent of primary energy demand (see chart) was met by fossil fuels, about the same as a decade before. Globally, the figures are similar, with renewables accounting for just 12.5 percent of consumption and low-emissions nuclear another 4 percent. Those numbers would have to basically reverse in the next decade or so to get on track. I don’t see how that can happen.

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Credit: Energy Information Administration

But even if 1.5°C is improbable in the short term, that doesn’t mean that missing the target won’t have consequences. And it certainly doesn’t mean giving up on addressing climate change. And in fact, there are some positive trends. Many companies are developing comprehensive plans for achieving net-zero emissions and are making those plans part of their long-term strategy. Moreover, while global emissions grew 0.9 percent in 2022, that was much less than GDP growth (3.2 percent). It’s worth noting, too, that much of the increase came from switching from gas to coal in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine; that is the kind of supply shock that can be reversed. The point is that growth and emissions no longer move in lockstep; rather the opposite. That is critical because poorer countries are never going to take serious climate action if they believe it threatens their future prosperity.

Another implication is that limiting emissions means addressing the use of fossil fuels. As noted, even with the substantial rise in the use of renewables, coal, gas, and oil are still the core of the global energy system. They cannot be wished away. Perhaps it is time to think differently—that is, making fossil fuels more emissions efficient, by using carbon capture or other technologies; cutting methane emissions; and electrifying oil and gas operations. This is not popular among many climate advocates, who would prefer to see fossil fuels “stay in the ground.” That just isn’t happening. The much likelier scenario is that they are gradually displaced. McKinsey projects peak oil demand later this decade, for example, and for gas, maybe sometime in the late 2030s. Even after the peak, though, oil and gas will still be important for decades.

Second, in the longer term, it may be possible to get back onto 1.5°C if, in addition to reducing emissions, we actually remove them from the atmosphere, in the form of “negative emissions,” such as direct air capture and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage in power and heavy industry. The IPCC itself assumed negative emissions would play a major role in reaching the 1.5°C target; in fact, because of cost and deployment problems, it’s been tiny.

Finally, as I have argued before, it’s hard to see how we limit warming even to 2°C without more nuclear power, which can provide low-emissions energy 24/7, and is the largest single source of such power right now.

None of these things is particularly popular; none get the publicity of things like a cool new electric truck or an offshore wind farm (of which two are operating now in the United States, generating enough power for about 20,000 homes; another 40 are in development). And we cannot assume fast development of offshore wind. NIMBY concerns have already derailed some high-profile projects, and are also emerging in regard to land-based wind farms.

Carbon capture, negative emissions, and nuclear will have to face NIMBY, too. But they all have the potential to move the needle on emissions. Think of the potential if fast-growing India and China, for example, were to develop an assembly line of small nuclear reactors. Of course, the economics have to make sense—something that is true for all climate-change technologies.

And as the UN points out, there needs to be progress on other issues, such as food, buildings, and finance. I don’t think we can assume that such progress will happen on a massive scale in the next few years; the actual record since Paris demonstrates the opposite. That is troubling: the IPCC notes that the risks of abrupt and damaging impacts, such as flooding and crop yields, rise “with every increment of global warming.” But it is the reality.

There is one way to get us to 1.5°C, although not in the Paris timeframe: a radical acceleration of innovation. The approaches being scaled now, such as wind, solar, and batteries, are the same ideas that were being discussed 30 years ago. We are benefiting from long-term, incremental improvements, not disruptive innovation. To move the ball down the field quickly, though, we need to complete a Hail Mary pass.

It’s a long shot. But we’re entering an era of accelerated innovation, driven by advanced computing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning that could narrow the odds. For example, could carbon nanotubes displace demand for high-emissions steel? Might it be possible to store carbon deep in the ocean? Could geo-engineering bend the curve?

I believe that, on the whole, the world is serious about climate change. I am certain that the energy transition is happening. But I don’t think we are anywhere near to being on track to hit the 1.5°C target. And I don’t see how doing more of the same will get us there.

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Scott Nyquist is a senior advisor at McKinsey & Company and vice chairman, Houston Energy Transition Initiative of the Greater Houston Partnership. The views expressed herein are Nyquist's own and not those of McKinsey & Company or of the Greater Houston Partnership. This article originally ran on LinkedIn.

In M&A news, Buckeye Partners has acquired a carbon capture and storage company from Oklahoma. Photo via Getty Images

Houston energy services company acquires carbon capture, storage biz

M&A Moves

Another Houston energy company has announced an acquisition in the carbon capture space.

Buckeye Partners, a Houston-headquartered energy infrastructure and logistics provider, announced this week that it has acquired Oklahoma City-based Elysian Carbon Management from EnCap Flatrock Midstream. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Elysian, founded in 2018, secured an initial capital commitment of $350 million from EnCap Flatrock Midstream in 2021. The company's technology includes end-to-end carbon capture and storage solutions.

“This acquisition reflects Buckeye’s commitment to continue to provide essential infrastructure and logistics solutions to meet our customers’ evolving needs in the energy transition,” say Buckeye CEO Todd Russo in a news release. “Rapidly developing CCS-related technologies and solutions offer abundant synergies across Buckeye’s project development capabilities and existing pipeline network and are essential to enabling the energy transition’s success."

With the acquisition, Russo continues, the Elysian team will join the Buckeye platform to integrate the two companies' expertise. Per the release, Buckeye hopes to become a net-zero energy business by 2040, across scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions.

“Buckeye continues to demonstrate resiliency and emissions-reduction results across its increasingly diversified energy solutions portfolio,” says Elysian CEO Bret Logue in the release. “We’re fully aligned with their decarbonization mission and look forward to adding immediate value to Buckeye’s customer base and their momentum in the energy transition by integrating CCS technologies across the energy value chain.”

Less than a week before Buckey's M&A news, ExxonMobil announced its acquisition of a carbon capture company in a $4.9 billion deal.

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Houston company plans to install the first commercial direct lithium extraction plant in the US

coming soon

Houston-based International Battery Metals, whose technology offers an eco-friendly way to extract lithium compounds from brine, is installing what it’s billing as the world’s first commercial modular direct-lithium extraction plant.

The mobile facility is located at US Magnesium’s operations outside Salt Lake City. The plant, expected to go online later this year, will process brine produced from lithium-containing waste-magnesium salts. The resulting lithium chloride product will provide feedstock for high-purity lithium carbonate generated by US Magnesium.

Under its agreement with US Magnesium, International Battery Metals (IBAT) will receive royalties on lithium sales, as well as payments for equipment operations based on lithium prices and performance.

IBAT says its patented technology is the only system that delivers a 97 percent extraction rate for lithium chloride from brine water, with up to 98 percent of water recycled and with minimal use of chemicals.

“Commercial operations will serve growing lithium demand from automakers for electric vehicle batteries, as well as energy storage batteries to support growing electricity demand and to balance the grid from increased renewable energy integration,” IBAT says in a news release.

Initially, the less than three-acre plant will annually produce 5,000 metric tons of lithium chloride. The modular plant was fabricated in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

“Our commercial operations with US Mag will advance a productive lithium extraction operation,” says Garry Flowers, CEO of IBAT. “Given current lithium demand, supply dependence on China, and permitting challenges, our expected commercial operations are coming at an ideal time to produce lithium at scale in the U.S.”

IBAT says the technology has been validated by independent reviewers and has been tested in Texas, California, Michigan, Ohio, and Oklahoma, as well as Argentina, Canada, Chile, and Germany.

IBAT says its modular concept positions the company to be a key supplier for rising U.S. lithium demand, providing an alternative to China and other global suppliers.

John Burba, founder, CTO and director of IBAT, says the modular extraction technology “will be the basis of future lithium extraction from brine resources around the world.”

Houston hospital system to launch all-electric fleet of delivery drones

looking up

A Houston hospital system has announced that it has plans to launch a drone delivery service that will replace traditional car deliveries in 2026.

Memorial Hermann Health System announced that it intends to be the first health care provider in Houston to roll out drone delivery services from San Francisco-based Zipline, a venture capital-backed tech company founded in 2014 that's completed 1 million drone deliveries.

"As a system, we are continuously seeking ways to improve the patient experience and bring greater health and value to the communities we serve. Zipline provides an innovative solution to helping our patients access the medications they need, quickly and conveniently, at no added cost to them," Alec King, executive vice president and CFO for Memorial Hermann, says in a news release.

Zipline boasts of achieving delivery times seven times faster than traditional car deliveries and can usually drop off packages at a rate of a mile a minute. The drones, called Zips, can navigate any weather conditions and complete their missions with zero emissions.

Per the release, the service will be used to deliver medical supplies and prescriptions to patients or supplies or samples between its locations.

"Completing more than one million commercial deliveries has shown us that when you improve health care logistics, you improve every level of the patient experience. It means people get better, faster, more convenient care, even from the comfort of their own home," adds Keller Rinaudo Cliffton, co-founder and CEO of Zipline. "Innovators like Memorial Hermann are leading the way to bring better care to the U.S., and it's going to happen much faster than you might expect."

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

Know before you go: Offshore Technology Conference 2024

things to know

An annual conference that showcases technology for the offshore energy business is taking over Houston's NRG Park for the majority of the week.

Here's what you need to know before you go out to the event, which will take place Monday, May 6, to Thursday, May 9.

Attend the Distinguished Achievement Awards on Sunday, May 5

OTC's annual awards reception, the Distinguished Achievement Awards, will kick off the week on May 5. The three award honorees for OTC 2024 have been named and will be honored at the event. Click here to learn more about this year's honorees.

Visit the Energy Transition Pavilion 

The Energy Transition Pavilion will feature panels and presentations about the future of sustainability in the energy industry. The programming takes place Monday through Wednesday, and the exhibit is located at NRG Center in Hall C.

Zoom in on offshore wind

This year, OTC is featuring a dedicated thread to offshore wind technology. A mix of panels, keynotes, and technical presentations, the programming will take place over Monday through Wednesday.

Don't miss the exhibition hall

Over a thousand companies will be exhibiting at OTC this year, and the hall can be a bit overwhelming. Check the program or the map online to see who's exhibiting and where to find them.

Catch the three university showcases 

OTC's University R&D Showcase will feature three schools — the University of Houston, Texas A&M International University, and the University of São Paulo. You can find each university's booth open all four days of OTC.