Education / Year of Carbon

What can we do with CO2?

In February, French school students in the Lyon area were surprised to find their traditional science textbooks and lessons replaced with interactive scientific workshops – taught entirely in English – on the topic of carbon capture and geological storage. I was lucky enough to deliver these workshops, funded by the British Council, as part of my internship at the Geological Society.

The Science in Schools programme has been running for over 10 years, bringing exciting and cutting edge scientific workshops crafted by UK researchers to French school children. These workshops give students the chance to practice using their language skills in a scientific setting with native speakers and experts in their field. The workshops offer pupils a unique cultural, scientific and linguistic experience.

 

 

In 2014, I co-developed a workshop for the GeoBus outreach and education programme funded by the Crown Estate, with support from The Global CCS Institute, Shell, and SCCS, about carbon capture and geological storage. It teaches students about the causes and effects of climate change, the environmental impacts of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide, and about the process of carbon capture and storage as a solution to this problem. The workshop materials are hosted online for anyone to download and use. In 2019 the workshop was chosen by the British Council to be delivered to 9 schools across 5 days in the Lyon area. The workshops ran for half the school day and replaced the students usual science or English classes.

Conveying the scientific causes and effects of climate change can be difficult due to the long timescales involved, and the global scales at which processes occur. To visualise the effect of burning fossil fuels the workshop begins by igniting hydrocarbon vapour in a large water cooler bottle to create a loud and fast burning flame that ‘whooshes‘ into the air. This spectacular reaction produces heat, light and sound energy and chemically results in water and carbon dioxide. The gas tends to get trapped in the bottle and the students can observe the cloud forming inside the bottle. The rest of the workshop similarly illustrates all of the key scientific concepts through visual, interactive, unusual experiments and demonstrations. The workshop exposes students to applied science, and to the concept of utilising scientific skills to solve global problems.

Although the themes in the workshop are serious, the methods we use to illustrate them are far from it. From making CO2 molecules with marshmallows, to transporting CO2 molecules (we like to use Maltesers!) with no hands, it’s better not to run this workshop hungry or you can end up wanting to eat most of the experiments!

 

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Pouring out the water formed as a by-product of the combustion of fuel and oxygen inside the ‘whoosh’ bottle. After this the cloud of CO2 forms inside which the students can see.

The carbon dioxide released when we burn fossil fuels can be problematic for the environment in many ways. The students explore one of these by finding out what happens to fresh and salt water when CO2 is added. The resulting acidified sweater can be harsh and limiting to life in the oceans, and the students watch as acidified water dissolves shells and limestone samples.

The workshop focuses on the concept of carbon capture and geological storage – a method of reducing our CO2 emissions from fuel plants and industrial sources by capturing the CO2 at source, transporting it to a geological reservoir and injecting it underground for storage. Students create and capture their own CO2 in a balloon, before working as a team to transport it from source to storage site, before learning about the different geological properties that make carbon capture and storage (CCS) safe and secure.

We use models to illustrate lots of the concepts we teach in the workshops as often what we are trying to see is either very small or underground. We use plasticine models to test the effect of structure on the ability of rocks to trap and store CO2. We use chocolate models to test the porosity (space inside the rock) and permeability (connectedness of space in the rock) of potential storage rocks, and learn that a rock needs both to be a good store for CO2!

 

 

The really unique aspect of these workshops is the hands on approach to learning. Although some of the concepts are scientifically simple, such as the formation of acidified seawater due to excess atmospheric CO2, there is a lot to be gained from witnessing this reaction take place and being able to measure and quantify it. It allows the students to form their own opinions based on evidence they have gathered as opposed to having to believe something they are told by us. This can be a particularly powerful learning tool.

The workshop teaches students that there are innovative ways we can combat our excess atmospheric CO2, and that they can contribute directly to these through the study of geosciences. It reinforces the value of solving problems with a diverse team as many of the challenges, experiments, and demonstrations benefit vastly from varying skills and perspectives. Carbon capture and geological storage is a solution which requires lots of different skills including geology, engineering, communication, logistics, surveying, monitoring, management or technical skills.

Overall we delivered the workshop in 7 schools, a children’s hospital, and a technical college, reaching over 200 students in five days. The workshops were popular, receiving positive feedback from pupils and teachers alike, and the British Council hope to run them again next year.

These workshops ran in our Year of Carbon, and we will be bringing a selection of these climate change and carbon capture activities to various Geological Society events throughout the year! Take a look at our website to find out more about upcoming events, education resources, special public lectures, library events, publication collections, and more!

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