OUR GREAT MINDS

by Graham Chandler

CO2 Treasure That Won’t Need Burying

Millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide belch into the atmosphere each day. Is sequestration the solution? An upstart California company has a better way.

Imagine if you could capture the CO2 that’s being released into the atmosphere in the millions of tons worldwide every day and turn it into common everyday fuels like gasoline and diesel. If upstart Santa Barbara, California firm Carbon Sciences Inc is successful in scaling up its groundbreaking research that has demonstrated it can be done, gasoline plants could soon be springing up alongside every coal-fired power station.

“There are thousands of industrial processes worldwide that emit thousands of tons of carbon dioxide,” says Carbon Sciences CEO, Byron Elton. “And there is pressure on them to reduce that. You have to extract the stuff and then the question is, what are you going to do with it?” A popular and current answer seems now to bury it underground—a process the world is spending countless billions on. “But we, along with a number of other people, don’t think sequestration is a particularly good solution,” he says. Efficiently converting it into useful products seems a much better idea to this company.

The process uses enzymes that are common to many industrial processes. Carbon Sciences has used them to make methanol from pure CO2 and water: the enzymes ‘stitch together’ carbon and hydrogen molecules from these two feedstocks to make the fuel at essentially room temperatures and pressures, so the energy required for production is relatively small, says Elton.

The big challenge now is the commercial viability of the process. It seems that there are two big challenges: the enzymes don’t last long, and they can be slow to work. This can mean you need lots of enzymes, and you need to wait a while before fuel is produced, reckons Elton.

However, they’ve tackled both problems. “Our challenge has been to create an environment where they can continue to thrive for long periods—we call this the TTN, or the total turnover number. Every time they perform their mission, that’s a turn.” He says last year they filed an IT on a nanoscale reactor which allowed a high-TTN environment. “We have the reaction down to about ten minutes—it used to be ten hours.”

It hasn’t been large scale yet, and the amount of fuel produced has been small, but “we now have the data from this prototype and can move to scale that up.” He says they’re already in discussion with a number of potential strategic partners.

What would be a business model for the process? “The licensing model,” says Elton. And so the question is licensed by whom? “Essentially, large CO2 emitters,” he says. “Take a coal-fired plant. In the US, that’s where we get half of our electricity—but it’s a pretty nasty process.” He says they are the number one man-made CO2 emitters in the world. “So we have significant attention from [the coal-fired] sector.”

Elton describes potential economics. “Say a 500-megawatt facility emits 5,000 metric tons of CO2 each day. Our calculations thus far, and we feel pretty confident, show we could turn that into about 750,000 gallons of gasoline a day.” Refineries could be customers, too.

The company’s approach until recently was the aforementioned bio-catalytical process. But they now have a parallel path, the chemical approach. “It has advantages in the sense that we don’t need pure CO2,” he says. What comes out of the coal-fired plants’ smokestacks is only three to five percent CO2, so it needs to be scrubbed out. He adds that “With the chemical process you can take the flue gas as it is, and using plain water, you could generate electricity with it. It you think about it, with a coal-fired plant that is already producing electricity, what you would essentially have is a clean coal-fired plant –that’s very exciting.”

The chemical process would, theoretically, eliminate the cost of CO2 capture, which Elton says can range up to $73 per ton before sequestration. “This cost is, perhaps, the single biggest economic barrier to any large-scale CO2 applications, such as carbon sequestration,” he said in a recent news release.

Also, the company claims the process produces very little waste. “No show-stoppers in terms of toxicity,” says Elton. “There’s always a bit of a waste stream in terms of destabilized water and whatnot. The CO2 is essentially completely used and the water may need a bit of purification, but certainly nothing that people would think is nastier than what we started with.” It appears that if it’s all successful, timing is propitious. The Obama administration advocates clean energy, reduction of global warming and a reduced reliance on imported energy. Although says Elton, success with the company’s process doesn’t hinge on any specific legislation or new federal policies and incentives, for “not only will we reduce energy costs but we will check off all the boxes on climate and renewable and sustainable energy.”

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