Where is the geologist’s playground? Kim Senger revealed 

In the June edition of the #CzexpatsOnline series, Kim Senger talked about how we can decrease carbon dioxide emissions through storage underground. Kim is a geologist and geophysicist currently working as an Associate Professor at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), Longyearbyen, Norway.

Svalbard is a geologist’s playground

Kim started the lecture stating that it’s easy to do research and teach Svalbard geology, because the place is a geologist’s playground and the only reason there is a university or even a settlement here is because of geology. Apart from geologists, other researchers, such as climate scientists, ecologists or anthropologists, also enjoy the advantages of this playground. Svalbard is a hotspot of climate research due to a phenomenon called polar amplification – which simply said means that the increase in the planet’s temperature will be most observed near the poles. This brought us to the main topic of the lecture – can we as people, as humans, as geoscientists, do something about it?

In his research, Kim is actually trying to do something about climate change by storing CO2 in the subsurface. He explained that during the process of CO2 capture and storage (CCS), CO2 is first captured in a process that requires large facilities and is energy intensive, but is technically mature and its costs are going down. Following capture, CO2 is transported to a storage facility and finally it is injected deep underground into a porous and permeable reservoir (usually a sandstone), sealed with impermeable material (typically shale), all placed under suitable pressure-temperature conditions that can be found typically more than 800 m underground. Apart from storage, some of the captured CO2 can be repurposed, for example to enhance oil recovery or in greenhouses.

Why is CCS “hot” now?

Kim explained that there is an idea that by 2050, the global energy emissions should reach a net zero. A lot of action like switching fuels, electrifying transport, etc. need to be taken, but there is still a big gap to reach this goal. CCS is one of the ways to overcome this gap. Nowadays, Norway is one of the leading countries in CCS in the world. It operates several facilities, with Norwegian CCS history going back to the early 1990s. Denmark also started their own CCS project in 2023. On the other hand, Germany is a country that demonstrates the problem of legislation around CO2 storage. While technically it is possible to store CO2 onshore in a similar way to offshore, in Germany there are simply too many people opposed to having CO2 injected in their “backyards”.  In addition, German legislation means that it is currently impossible to start a CO2 storage project in this country. 

Kim then focused on his research project that started in 2006 with a vision of reaching a CO2 neutral society in Longyearbyen. Since then, several wells have been drilled, storage capacity and injectivity of the subsurface has been confirmed and several other tests were run to validate storage capability. As the research is based at the university, many students were trained and carried out their research during the process. Kim next spent some time explaining how digital geology can be useful. Using drone photography, scientists are nowadays able to create surface models, which they can then use all year long, regardless of weather conditions. Such digital outcrop models from Svalbard are freely available within the Svalbox project and within its sister project VR Svalbard, as you can see in this video.

Life in the far north

Kim concluded the lecture with a few factoids about life in Svalbard – he assured us that there certainly are more people than polar bears there. He explained that nobody is allowed to be born there, nobody is supposed to die there and if you do, you will be buried elsewhere. Svalbard is administratively part of Norway and of NATO, but it is not in the Schengen area so you have to be ready to pass through customs when arriving from the mainland. The sun in Svalbard sets in October and returns in March. He highlighted that it is a good place to do science and PhD students at UNIS are, in comparative terms, the best paid in the world, and reminded us that the Czech Republic has its own research station in Svalbard (Czech Arctic Research Station).

After the talk, a fruitful discussion with questions from the audience followed. I would like to pinpoint two questions from this discussion – the first one being how you make sure that the CO2 stays underground? “You monitor it,” Kim answered, adding that everything is always dynamic in the subsurface and you primarily need to know the values – even if an earthquake comes and a small percentage of the CO2 leaks, it is still worth it. Big leakages are not going to happen, but even if they did, they would not be dangerous. The other question was whether it is worth the cost. Kim replied that “it depends on how much we want to do for the planet”, which felt like a more than convincing response.

Foto: Kim Senger archive