2012-04-09

Co.Exist

Turning Emissions To Baking Soda, Using A Little High School Chemistry

What if we could transmute pollution into a harmless—even helpful—substance that won’t destroy the planet? The science of carbon capture aims to do just that.

We always think that cleaning up CO2 carries a big price tag. It does. But one company’s waste is another’s raw materials, and perhaps we can turn that price tag into a profit.

Skyonic, an Austin engineering firm, has designed a carbon capture technology called SkyMine that is designed to profitably capture C02 emissions by mineralizing the gas into what is essentially baking soda. Although that’s high school chemistry, the trick of turning a power plants’ carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, one of the main drivers of climate change, into something safer either by storage or chemical transformation has proved a stickier problem.

The main strategy has been "carbon capture and storage" (CCS): Emissions from a CO2 source are separated and piped into geologic storage, usually underground. The various pieces of that process have already been proven around the world, but the scale and price tag remain barriers.

The approach adopted by Skyonic, and others such as the U.K.'s Energy Technologies Institute, treats emissions as raw material for minerals. It mixes a strong base with acidic CO2 to create mineral similar to the limestone or chalk, the same geological formation that underlies much of the Himalayas, England’s Dover cliffs, as well as parts of the Southeastern U.S. The mineral can then processed to produce food-grade bicarbonate already used in the livestock and food industries.

"Let capitalism work," Joe Jones, the CEO and chemical engineer who has raised $48 million in private equity funding for Skyonic, told Bloomberg. "We can recycle the carbon dioxide and displace mining of minerals."

The system can capture and convert CO2 for about $23 a metric ton, Jones estimates. That compares to more than $135 a ton for sending those emissions into storage under the North Sea based on a Citigroup analysis, reports Bloomberg. Then Skyonics plans to sell its mineralized emissions to more than offset its costs.

"SkyMine is designed to be profitable," says Jones today by email, "with or without a carbon tax."

The firm is in the middle of field trials at power plants throughout Texas and will be designing a full-scale facility at its pilot project with the Capitol Aggregates Cement Plant. Although SkyMine’s technique has been proved feasible in the lab and field tests, says Jones, new CSS technologies are proving as difficult to build and implement as they are simple in concept. To dent human CO2 emissions at the scale needed to slow climate change, technologies will need to be fail-safe, reliable, and relatively economical. Nothing has met those demands yet.

Skyonic figures it can clear that bar by repurposing today’s technologies for power plants and factories. "SkyMine is really Edisonian, in that it takes proven technologies and combines them in novel ways to innovative results," says Jones.

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1 Comments

  • Rodenburg

    The question is not whether this can be done economically, but whether it can be done with creating as much CO2 emissions as it prevents.  You need chemicals to create that basic solution, and it takes CO2 emissions to mine and process them.