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Faculty in Princeton and Norway Collaborate to Teach Innovative Carbon Capture and Sequestration Course

CEE 599: Special Topics in Environmental Engineering and Water Resources
The two monitors in the Princeton classroom: one shows the students in Norway and the other served as an electronic blackboard, projecting what Professor Jan Nordbotten is writing onto the Tablet laptop. The image is projected in Princeton and Norway simultaneously. (Photo: Carol Peters)

The clock said 8:30 am in Princeton, New Jersey, and 2:30 pm in Bergen, Norway when students in both cities took their seats in the same engineering course, to hear the same lectures and read the professor’s notes on the virtual “blackboard” that linked the classrooms on different continents.

During the fall 2009 semester, faculty at Princeton and the University of Bergen in Norway collaborated to co-teach a new, cutting-edge engineering course, for both undergraduates and graduate students, on carbon capture and sequestration. Made possible by the use of the University's "green" videoconferencing technology, the course tested both the curriculum and the technology for the first time, and it was a noteworthy success.

The PEI/Grand Challenges course, called “CEE 599: Special Topics in Environmental Engineering and Water Resources–Carbon Capture & Geologic Sequestration,” combined the expertise of Professor Jan Nordbotten of the University of Bergen, Norway, with that of Professors Michael Celia and Catherine Peters from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Also participating in the course was Dr. Kate Baker, the 2009 BP-Vann Visiting Fellow from the Princeton Environmental Institute.

Michael Celia, Theodora Shelton Pitney Professor of Environmental Studies, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Chair, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, explained the origins of the course. “Jan and I have worked together for a number of years (we are currently co-authoring a book that we used in the class, called "Geological Carbon Storage: Modeling Approaches for Large Scale Simulation”), and the idea for the course grew out of our collaboration. In a broader context, we are interested in putting together a virtual institute focusing on carbon related activities, and this class was the first piece of the puzzle."

Catherine Peters, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, added, "The concept was to have the course serve audiences across the ocean with the idea that a solution to climate change will have to be a global solution. It helps U.S. students to see how carbon sequestration is being viewed in a global context, particularly in Norway where geologic carbon sequestration is already being implemented."

CEE 599 offered a unique opportunity for students to learn more about carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology prior to its development in the U.S., and to gain a better understanding of the critical issues surrounding the technology, including scientific, practical, policy, and economic considerations. The ability of the three instructors to co-teach meant they were able to bring their combined expertise and different perspectives to bear on every angle of the course curriculum, which made it extremely valuable for students.

Celia said about the collaboration, “In broad terms, Bergen has an applied math group that is also very strongly tied into the Center for Integrated Petroleum Research (CIPR). On the Princeton side, we brought the Carbon Mitigation Institute (CMI) kinds of ideas to the class, which provide the broader view of the problem with more of an engineering application than Bergen tends to think about.”

Teleconferencing the class in real time worked by using Webex. Two monitors were set up at the front of both the Princeton and Bergen classrooms. One monitor showed the instructor, the other served as the electronic blackboard, projecting what the instructors wrote on Tablet laptops. To post assignments, the instructors used “Blackboard.” On the Princeton end, a staff member from OIT was present at every class, to set up initially and stay for the duration of the classes in the event of a glitch.

Jan Nordbotten, Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Bergen and Visiting Research Scholar in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Princeton, said, “This collaboration meant that the students got a better end product. Doing this together meant we made no compromises; we could offer the best possible course. My perception is that in Norway broader courses often have the reputation of being easier, perhaps because it’s perceived that they satisfy the lowest common denominator. In contrast, this was a challenging broader course, and it showed the students in Norway that interdisciplinary work is difficult, and there is real knowledge to be gained from it.”

Collaborating with a university in Norway to co-teach this particular course was valuable for Princeton students because Norway is quickly becoming a world leader in understanding and implementing carbon capture and sequestration technology. In the U.S., the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency are leading substantial research efforts to investigate implementing CCS on the large scale that would be required for this country, but as of yet it has not been implemented on more than a test scale. Princeton is one of the few places conducting research on this technology in a university setting.

Carbon capture and geologic storage is already a reality in Norway. Statoil, a Norwegian energy company, has been sequestering CO2 under the North Sea at the Sleipner natural gas field since 1996. At Sleipner, Statoil must remove naturally-occurring CO2 from the natural gas before the latter can be sold, and an atmospheric carbon emissions tax has made geologic storage an attractive CO2 disposal option. In the past Norway generated almost all of its electricity with hydroelectric plants, but recent construction of power plants that use natural gas and plans to build more have caused controversy because of their CO2 emissions. Currently there are plans to begin sequestering 1.5 million tonnes per year of CO2 from a natural gas power plant at Mongstad in 2014.

The class gave the students a broad understanding of what the carbon problem is, and why scientists are suggesting geologic sequestration as a solution to the CO2 emissions problem, at least as a stop gap measure until renewable energies are developed. Scientists believe the technology will not provide a permanent solution, because presumably the world will run out of places to store the carbon underground. However, many scientists believe it could be used as a very effective solution for the short term. Global carbon emissions keep increasing, so atmospheric concentrations of CO2 keep going up. If CO2 emissions cannot be reduced, then capturing and storing the CO2 in the ground will keep levels in the atmosphere down.

Adam Janzen, a student who took the class (he is earning his masters degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and is writing his thesis on the numerical modeling of carbon capture and sequestration), said, “In addition to furthering my knowledge of mathematical modeling of geologic CO2 storage, CEE 599 helped me see how my research fits into the global context of greenhouse gas mitigation.

“The oil industry has much experience in injecting CO2 , which they sometimes do for enhanced oil recovery to dissolve trapped oil that can’t simply be pumped out. We also know how to capture CO2 from power plant exhaust, but, like injection, we haven’t done it yet on the large scale being proposed. We’re still trying to determine whether we can put such enormous volumes of CO2 underground and keep it there. This was the goal of the course – to explain why scientists are considering geologic sequestration seriously and why it is a reasonable option.

“In the class we studied mathematical models to answer some of the questions we have about the technology in terms of its effectiveness and safety. We can’t see that far down into the Earth to directly observe what’s happening there, so we have to rely on simulations with mathematical models instead. I am writing computer programs to simulate what happens underground when CO2 is injected, and I’m specifically looking at how the injection affects the pressures in the rock formations. We must be careful not to raise the pressure high enough to fracture the rock, which could happen if we try to inject too much CO2 through a single well. If the rock fractures, the CO2 could potentially escape and go back into the atmosphere, and if that happens then obviously this technology won’t provide a solution.”

May Jean Cheah, a PhD candidate in Chemical Engineering, also took the course. Her area of expertise is in hydrogen fuel cell research. May Jean found the course to be very valuable, explaining, “At the beginning of the class I was skeptical about the carbon sequestration technology, the idea of sequestering CO2 in saline aquifers. I wanted to know the truth, if there are safety issues, and if so, how are proponents dealing with them and other policy issues. I wanted to know what the myths are and what the truths are. Because of the class I am no longer skeptical. I learned that many of the myths are not true, and I now believe that during this transition period (from fossil fuels to renewable energy), it is a necessary technology.”

Celia hoped the class would give students a sense of the scale of the problem, and some facility with the numbers involved. “The main thing was to make sure the students understand and appreciate the kinds of models that Jan and I have put together and how we have been thinking about the problem. The thinking leads to models that are simple enough while still capturing the essential physics of the problem.”