Don't just put a lid on it: Companies test CO2 conversion tech

Skyonic, Carbon Sciences look beyond traditional carbon sequestration and storage; seek ways to convert carbon into materials that can be sold for a profit
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

I like to think of myself as a pragmatist, even though writing this column on a daily basis probably flags me as some sort of radical idealist. Here's a compromise description: I'm a pragmatic progressive.

This stream of consciousness is all in the way of introducing a topic that has been nagging at me for weeks now: Is technology that perpetuates the use of coal, albeit cleaner coal, considered a "green" technology? I'm going to have to say that my answer is yes.

One area I've been studying over the past few weeks is carbon sequestration (aka carbon capture), in which emissions are somehow trapped by some sort sort of biological, chemical or physical process. Carbon sequestration isn't really a new concept at all. But while we fight with each other over which forms of renewable energy to fund, some start-up companies are testing for-profit technologies intended to grab the carbon dioxide and do something useful with it.

There are two big reasons this is interesting: First, despite our concern as humans, the Energy Information Association projects a 39 percent increase in worldwide carbon dioxide emissions from 2006 to 2030 -- to a projected 40.4 billion. So, how we use up these emissions will make a difference. What's more, coal-powered plants are facing tougher emissions mandates.

One example of a company hoping to profit from this is Skyonic, which in April said it had begun operating a carbon mineralization demonstration facility at a cement plant in San Antonio, Texas. The SkyMine technology that Skyonic is using at the facility is designed to remote carbon dioxide from the plant's flue gas stacks and convert it into carbonate byproducts (think baking soda). The reason that this particular company caught my attention is the fact that it just snagged a $3 million grant from the Department of Energy to help plan for a full-scale SkyMine plant at the Capitol facility. Construction of this plant is scheduled to start in the third quarter of 2010, and it should be completed by 2012.

Skyonic CEO Joe Jones says the San Antonio retrofit will create materials that could be sold by the cement company as an additional source of income. The flue scrubber that is unused in the SkyMine process is about 20 percent to 30 percent larger than traditional scrubbers. In addition to needing a footprint of about 2.5 acres, Skyonic also require that potential sites have a railyard, so that the bicarbonates can be shipped out when they are produced.

This particular facility is being operated as a joint venture of Skyonic and the investors that own Capitol Aggregates (which runs the cement plant). So, the plant operates can focus on their core business while the JV handles the carbon credit accounting, the documentation for Sarbanes-Oxley and other compliance regulations. It also owns the value of the chemical products that result from processing the carbon dioxide.

The project in San Antonio will capture roughly 75,000 metric tonnes of flue gas, which will produce almost double that among in various sodium carbonates. Those materials, in turn, are desirable for glass manufacturing or algae biofuel production, according to Skyonic CEO Joe Jones. Their sale will fund the plant operation.

Skyonic has surveyed at least another eight sites that are potential candidates for its technology, according to Jones. "We want to demonstrate commercial profitability so that others will be standing in a long line to do the same," he says.

Another company hoping to exploit the commercial potential of carbon dioxide is Carbon Sciences, which is working on ways to recycle carbon dioxide back into gasoline or other so-called portable fuels. Early this year, Carbon Sciences said it had developed a new process for using flue emissions captured directly from coal plants or industrial factories in order to transform emissions into gasoline.

Here's what Byron Elton, CEO of Carbon Sciences, had to say about its new "breakthrough" in a press release issued back in January:

"The United Nations' IPCC estimates that the cost of simply capturing CO2 for applications, such as underground sequestration or transformation into produces, can range from $45 to $73 per ton of CO2. This cost is perhaps the single biggest barrier to any large-scale carbon CO2 applications, such as carbon sequestration. However, by being able to use a raw CO2 flue gas stream in our CO2-to-Fuel technology, we are no longer dependent on the success of commercial availability of carbon capture systems. In addition, unlike biofuels based on growing plants to absorb CO2 from the air, our CO2-to-Fule process is an industrial process that can produce fuel in minutes to hours, not months to years, to meet the demands of the world."

When I spoke with him recently as a follow-up, Elton said his company is working on prototypes for its technologies, which aren't commercial available yet. Like Skyonic, Carbon Sciences will be seeking partners who are interested in creating a business based on selling the end product of its carbon capture and conversion technology.

"The difference in what we do against traditional carbon sequestration is that we are recycling it. We are using it produce additional fuels," he said.

The earliest candidates for Carbon Sciences' technology would be some of the largest emitters, such as coal-fired plants, refineries or cement companies, he sais.

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