Invention may lead to greener power plants

Earth Day Special Feature 2011: Students have invented a smokestack that fights climate change by capturing carbon dioxide and turning it into something that's actually useful.

Students have invented a smokestack that fights climate change by collecting carbon dioxide and turning it into something that's actually useful. But whatever that thing is, they're not telling -- at least not yet.

The invention, developed by students at Michigan Technological University, attacks the problem of carbon emissions in the same spirit as other carbon scrubbers. It consists of a 11-foot portable smokestack that's filled with glass beads. As emitted gases rise upwards, a special liquid that drips down continuously from the top absorbs as much as half of the carbon dioxide that passes through.

As appealing as carbon scrubbing methods are, they haven't quite caught on the way renewable energy efforts have. The reason for this primarily has to do with the fact that capturing, compressing and storing carbon dioxide is a pricey operation for power companies, with much of the costs ending up being tacked on to customers' utilities bill.

And we're not talking a small lump of change here. For instance, it's estimated that a consumer would end up paying on average 57 percent more if the energy was supplied by a power plant equipped with carbon scrubbing technology. However, an existing plant that is retrofitted to accommodate carbon scrubbers can cost the consumer upwards of 290 percent more, according to a study conduced by the Princeton Environmental Institute.

“This is a very expensive technique, which is probably why we do not see it commonly employed in industry,” says MTU student Brett Spigarelli, a member of the research team.

However, their device uses a process that goes a step further than other scrubbers and binds the carbon in a solid form. The result is an undisclosed product that can be used as a construction material, while the liquid itself can be recovered and reused. All this, they feel, makes their invention a more attractive option for power companies.

This approach is somewhat similar to the one taken by the tech start-up SkyMine Corporation, which uses sequestered carbon to produce baking soda -- of all things.

The group has applied for a patent and hopes to build a pilot plant in cooperation with Carbontec Energy Corporation, an industry partner. In the meantime, the group is working on improvements that would allow the scrubber remove even more carbon dioxide.

Photo: George Olszewski/MTU

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