PIONEERING equipment which could be used to make significantly cheaper climate change preventing technology is being researched by a consortium led by Durham University, it was revealed today (November 21).

The team, which also involves Newcastle University, has won £1.3m of government and industry funding to develop a novel technique which uses particles from cosmic rays, formed in deep space by dying stars, to monitor underground storage sites for carbon dioxide.

Carbon capture and storage, in itself an emerging technology, aims to develop safe and sustainable methods of taking carbon dioxide waste from power plants and industrial installations, and storing it underground, with old oil and gas fields in the North Sea considered potential sites.

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The North-East is already building up a reputation for expertise in carbon capture and storage, which scientists say could help prevent climate change by locking the greenhouse gas away from the atmosphere.

The region could potentially benefit from millions of pounds of investment, bringing thousands of jobs, if the use of carbon capture becomes widespread.

However, monitoring the storage of carbon dioxide, to ensure it is not leaking or moving, can at present only be done using costly seismic studies, which only give a snapshot reading of the store at the point the study is done.

The new study will see geoscientists, particle physicists and engineers work together to examine the potential of using muons - sub-atomic particles from cosmic rays - to monitor carbon dioxide stores.

The rays, which cascade from the upper atmosphere and go on to penetrate rock several kilometres underground, can be used to map the density of the material above, enabling scientists to continuously and passively measure on-going levels of carbon dioxide.

They are hoping to create a device which can successfully monitor carbon dioxide under extreme conditions, such as those under the North Sea, to act as a warning alarm to indicate when a seismic study may be needed.

The team is made up of academics and engineers from Durham University, University of Sheffield, Bath University, Newcastle University, the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech supported by Premier Oil and Gas, and Cleveland Potash Limited.

The devices developed will be tested deep underground at Cleveland Potash’s Boulby mine on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change is providing £647,000 for the monitoring project, matched by funding from industry.

Project leader Professor Jon Gluyas, from Durham University’s department of earth sciences, said the device could potentially save hundreds of millions of pounds a year in the monitoring costs of carbon dioxide storage.

“We need to find a way of passively and continuously monitoring carbon dioxide storage, and this could be one. “I am a firm believer we should tidy up after ourselves, whether that is rubbish created by households or CO2 in the atmosphere. Anything which can reduce the financial costs will help to move it along.

“If the technology takes off, because of the huge array of skills we have in the North-East in engineering, deployment and managing these processes, it could make for a significant income for the area and a boost in terms of employment.

“We already know the muon monitoring technology works. There are good studies from research programmes which show this. We want to create a device which can withstand the pressures of hostile conditions and being 2km below ground.”

He said the project was a very exciting piece of work.

“If you think about it, we are monitoring the effects of a process which mitigates climate change using rays generated from far away in deep space by exploding stars,” he said. “It sounds like science fiction.

“It is a fantastic project. It is bringing together geologists, engineers, mathematicians and particle physicists. “I do believe the total of the different disciplines will be more than the sum of the parts.”