In western Japan, researchers fuss over tubes that look like coiled strands of linguini. But this is no cooking class: the scientists are trying to pull carbon dioxide — the leading greenhouse gas tied to global warming — from power plant exhaust.
The work, on filters that separate CO2 from other gases, is part of an expanding global race to trap greenhouse pollutants and bury them deep underground, an experimental and costly technology known as carbon capture and storage, or CCS.
In the biting cold of Europe's North Sea, Norway operates the world's first offshore carbon capture plant. The United States, meanwhile, is leading a $1.5 billion quest to build a zero-emissions, coal-based power station. Australia, the world's fourth largest coal producer, has more than a dozen planned projects.
The quest to transform fossil fuels into a clean energy source figures prominently at the two-week U.N. climate change conference that began Monday in Bali.
"I think carbon capture and storage will play an important part in a long-term response to climate change," said Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the conference. "Countries like China and India will continue to rely on abundantly available coal, and therefore you have to find a way of economically using that coal in a clean way."
Critics want renewables focus
The programs are not without critics.
Much of the focus of global warming efforts is on reducing production of carbon dioxide, not storing it. Many environmentalists argue that the billions spent on researching carbon storage should go instead to developing renewable energy sources.
Safety concerns abound. Some fear carbon dioxide could seep out of its underground storage, contaminating groundwater or poisoning the air. Carbon stored at the bottom of the ocean, as others have proposed, could wreak havoc with marine ecosystems.
The technology is expensive, will take years to develop, burden future generations with maintaining underground storage areas and only perpetuate the world's dependence on fossil fuels, critics say.
"What we see is a diversion of money away from renewables toward CCS and coal, and that's not the way we want to see things move forward," said Gabriela von Goerne of Greenpeace's climate and energy unit in Hamburg, Germany. "The technology is not in place, it's under development, and we don't have time. We need to cut emissions right now and not in 15 or 10 years."
Even proponents acknowledge they will have to overcome huge hurdles to combine coal burning operations with carbon storage. Because of the cost, the technology requires a large financial incentive — such as the high tax placed on carbon emissions in Norway — to make economic sense for energy companies.
But backers say that carbon storage would allow us to have our coal and burn it too — and that that's the only realistic course in a world so dependent on fossil fuels.
Plentiful and cheap, coal is a cornerstone of the global economy. And the energy industry, after years of mining and pumping fuels out of the earth, has valuable experience with underground sites where CO2 could be stored.
At the very least, supporters say, the technology could rein in emissions and help bridge the gap between the carbon-powered economy of today and one that will run on other energy sources in a distant tomorrow.
Projects are cropping up all over the place.
Norway, for instance, instituted the world's first carbon tax in 1992, which spurred state-controlled energy company Statoil — now StatoilHydro — to capture CO2 from the Sleipner offshore natural gas field starting in 1996 and inject it below the seabed. Norway has several other projects under way.
The 25-nation European Union has plans for 12 large-scale demonstration projects and is drafting a new policy to issue next year to guide member states on CCS.
The United States, meanwhile, is leading a big-budget project called FutureGen, which aims to build a power plant by 2017 that would use coal to produce a hydrogen-rich synthetic fuel to generate electricity, while capturing emissions and burying them.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates there is enough secure space underground in the United States and Canada to store between 1.2 trillion and 3.6 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide — a few hundred years of current U.S. emissions.
The Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth in Kyoto, in addition to studies on filter technology, recently completed a pilot project of injecting carbon dioxide into the earth. The institute is now monitoring the carbon to see if it moves underground.
Australia has some 15 projects ongoing, though the country is still more than a decade away from implementation.
"We're still at an early time," said John Wright, of Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. "The next five to 10 years will be a crucial time to test the validity of these various exercises."