Carbon capture—a key technology in a world facing the juxtaposed challenges of lessening the effects of climate change, while maintaining and surviving off of critical energy infrastructure.
Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), a technology used to prevent the release of large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere by capturing the CO2 and pumping it into underground geologic formations, has long been held back by high costs, its complexities and an inability to be commercialized.
For many coal plants today, implementing CCS technologies in order to meet air quality standards is less economically viable than shutting down altogether. However, that trend overlooks the fact that the world still desperately needs the industry to stay alive.
Although coal accounted for 42 percent of electricity production in 2011 in the US alone, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has aggressively pursued regulations to doom the industry. After passing the Clean Air Act's “new source performance standards,” the EPA successfully achieved a de facto ban on new coal-fired power plants, while leaving little hope for remaining sites. It required that all new utilities install equipment to control CO2 emissions, such as CCS—some of the most expensive and complex industrial equipment on the market.
What if there's another solution?
Rather than injecting captured CO2 deep into the ground, one company has found a safer, more profitable solution: mineralization of CO2. Based out of Texas, Skyonic is developing systems that capture CO2 by mineralizing the gas into sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, which would be sold into the market along with other byproducts of the process.
“I'm just a chemical engineer who thought he had a better idea for capturing CO2 than the current capture and release mechanisms, aimed at pumping it into the ground, by instead converting it into a mineral product,” says Joe Jones, President and CEO of Skyonic.
Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Department of Energy ran a research and construction grant program in 2009 and 2010, providing Skyonic with the most funding out of six contenders representing various carbon capture solutions. The company is now moving forward with the help of ConocoPhillips, BP and others to soon become a commercial reality. Starting with Capitol Aggregates Inc.'s cement plant in San Antonio, Texas, the $125 million system is expected to capture 75,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions each year.
Complements Natural Gas
As a natural gas-centric future becomes more apparent, carbon capture and mineralization has an upper hand in its ability to be adopted. While traditional carbon capture systems require extremely concentrated CO2, Skyonic's “Skymine” technology is effective even when the concentration of the gas is extremely low, making it suitable for natural gas plants.
Considering the country's lead in shale gas and all the industries it supports, there's a huge leadership potential for the US to jump on this technology now.
“The fact that our technology also performs a full scrub of SOx, NOx, mercury and metals from the flue gas of coal-fired utilities in the high 99 percentiles makes it a superior cleanup technology with the added benefits of eliminating CO2 and being profitable,” says Jones.
Is there still a place for traditional CCS technologies?
In areas surrounded by vast reserves of heavy oil, CCS can serve as an important player in enhanced oil recovery, using a portion of the captured CO2 to extend the field life of those wells.
“That's exactly what you should be doing with the waste product—putting it to use in a spot where you can,” says Jones. “The problem is, EOR accounts for a small portion of CO2 emissions in the U.S. If we were to replace all the mining of our carbon with carbonates that were manufactured from flue gas, we could probably knock out 30 percent of the nation's 2.6 billion tons of annual CO2 emissions—that's bending the needle.”
Wherever CCS can be used to boost EOR economically, it should be done. It's the places where it's done uneconomically, where sequestration costs between $100-300 a ton, where “it starts to look like a bad prescription for CO2 reduction,” Jones explains.
For everywhere else, Skyonic sees itself as providing one of the first technologies capable of making a significant dent in capturing CO2 at a rate the world needs to lessen harmful greenhouse gases. Jones predicts a major change will become apparent in the sector within the next five years as it brings the technology to the market.
“It's either going to happen now or never,” he says.
In addition to a growing demand in North America, Skyonic is considering parts of the world where economies are expanding and carbon is being burned the most, particularly China. The company is also looking at Europe, where carbon markets are strong.
“We'll be looking at places where the inputs for this process are cheap, the outputs [of CO2] are dire and the economics are even more compelling than they are here,” says Jones.
In Japan, where nuclear is coming back online for the first time since Fukushima, the geology of the country won't allow for the injection method of CO2 emissions to work.
“That's another place where I think we can make a tremendous difference,” says Jones.
Can coal be saved?
“It can and should be,” says Jones. “It accounts for around half of our electricity. You can't prescribe a good future for the US in which coal isn't used.
“I don’t think that CCS, pumping CO2 into the ground, is going to be sufficient. We're working hard to bring a less expensive, simpler ensemble to the market, which should give everyone in the coal business the best possible option that they can have.”