Addressing the climate change challenge

Associate Professor Hussein Hoteit of the University's Ali I. Al-Naimi Petroleum Engineering Research Center.

​-By Henriette Litvinenko and David Murphy, KAUST News

The world recognizes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as one of the most important producers of the hydrocarbons that power modern life. However, can the Kingdom also be one of the primary drivers in addressing global environmental challenges?

Global warming is one of the major challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, global atmospheric CO2 levels have been rising and the pace of emissions has been accelerating. Concurrent studies have shown strong correlations between the warming Earth and an increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, especially CO2 in the atmosphere. A multidisciplinary team of researchers is currently studying the feasibility of storing and trapping greenhouse gases—specifically CO2—in the subsurface rock structures of Saudi Arabia.

The research team for the multi-institutional project conducted under the auspices of the Saudi Ministry of Economy and Planning includes KAUST Associate Professor Hussein Hoteit from the University's Petroleum Engineering Research Center; recent KAUST graduate Ali Hamieh (Ph.D. '17 - chemical science); Dr. Nabil Abo-Khatwa of MEP; and Dr. Muntasir Shaikh from King Abdulaziz University (KAU).

The team is currently investigating the potential of a CO2 storage site in Harrat, a volcanic field near Madinah and proximate to a large CO2 source from a refinery in Yanbu. It could provide a pathway to scale-up processes to store large volumes of the compound. The researchers involved are studying carbon capture and storage, an emerging field of basic and applied engineering and science aimed at storing and trapping CO2 in subsurface rock formations. It is hoped that the project may provide Saudi Arabia one route among many to address the climate change challenge.

Safeguarding the environment—preserving natural resources

The acceleration in the volume of global CO2 emissions has seen policymakers from 195 countries— including Saudi Arabia—come together to agree to take measures to keep the global average warming below 2°C from pre-industrial levels. The goal of keeping the global average below 2°C could be achieved by reducing carbon emission rates. By ratifying the Paris Climate Agreement, Saudi Arabia has committed to taking measures to reduce CO2 emissions in tandem with executing Saudi Vision 2030. Safeguarding the environment and preserving natural resources is a national priority in both contexts. To achieve the aforementioned goals, the Saudi energy sector will be challenged to adapt to stricter environmental regulations.

"In February 2017, a team from the Ministry of Economy and Planning hosted by the Office of Saudi Affairsvisited KAUST to explore opportunities to collaborate and to leverage the University's strengths in engineering, environment and earth sciences. The project collaboration was later extended to include Dr. Mohammed Moufti from KAU in Jeddah," Hoteit said.

Map of CO2 sources in the Kingdom and a summary of ideal capture technologies.

"The ultimate goal of the project is to investigate the feasibility of CO2 storage in volcanic formations located in the western region of Saudi Arabia," Hoteit explained. "With this project, we have tackled three primary objectives: We created a detailed CO2 emission inventory of the main pollution sources in the Kingdom; we evaluated CO2 capture technologies specific to emitters' economic and technological constraints; and we identified potential CO2 subsurface traps to secure the gas and study the feasibility of CO2 storage in volcanic rock."

Additional assistance

At the beginning of the project, the team knew additional assistance would be needed for the work inherent in such an ambitious study. Recent KAUST graduate Ali Hamieh possessed the background needed to complete the effort.

"I was lucky to join the interesting and important project under the supervision of Professor Hoteit after finishing my Ph.D. I acquired new skills in applying workflows and procedures to perform feasibility studies, analyzing a massive amount of data, data verification, creating interactive geographic maps and other engineering aspects," Hamieh said.

(L-R) Recent KAUST graduate Ali Hamieh (Ph.D. '17 chemical science) and Associate Professor Hussein Hoteit, from the University's Ali I. Al-Naimi Petroleum Engineering Research Center (ANPERC).

Although the project included important fundamental scientific questions, Hamieh also saw the potential to use his KAUST education to make an impact on humanity.

"Some of the related research activities at KAUST are focused on developing efficient and low-cost disruptive solar and photovoltaic cells, synthesizing new materials to capture CO2 (such as metal-organic frameworks), providing catalysts to transform CO2 into useful chemicals, enhance efficiency through fuel combustion studies and more," Hamieh added.

Addressing one of humanity's biggest environmental challenges

Currently at an early stage in the project, the team from KAUST, KAU and MEP has now completed a quantitative assessment of CO2 emissions from the main six industries in the Kingdom (namely electricity, desalination, refineries, cement, petrochemicals and iron and steel industries, as well as road transport and other minor industries). The study also provides a detailed map of these CO2 sources and a summary of ideal capture technologies.

While the project is still in its early stages, the long-term potential for subsurface CO2 storage seems promising. The study and project are expected to expand our understanding of geo-, chemo-, thermal- and mechanical processes in subsurface geologic formations.

This multi-institutional collaborative study contributes to the University's goals relating to contributions to the Kingdom, educational opportunities and broader international scientific impact. However, more importantly, the work by Hoteit and his team places KAUST at the center of addressing one of humanity's biggest environmental challenges.

"Our key ambition is to help major industries such as power, desalination and petrochemical plants to contribute to Saudi Vision 2030 and the Paris Agreement while at the same time safeguarding the environment and preserving natural resources," Hoteit noted.

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