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Carbon Sciences CEO Byron Elton: With GTL tech, we're turning pollution into energy

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Carbon Sciences CEO Byron Elton says cleaner energy is a necessary step before clean energy. And it's not just an environmental issue -- it's a national security one, too.

In the future, the world will be powered completely by renewable energy.

But what will we do until then?

That's where Carbon Sciences comes into play. The Santa Barbara, Calif.-based startup recently filed the first of a series of patent applications for its scalable CO2-based "gas-to-liquids," or GTL, fuel technology, which turns a combination of natural gas and carbon dioxide directly into gasoline.

With the Gulf of Mexico still reeling from the BP-Transocean oil spill, its timing couldn't be better.

I spoke with Carbon Sciences CEO Byron Elton about how his technology intends to help the United States -- and the world -- reduce its dependency on petroleum. According to Elton, clean sources of energy are a noble goal, but there's a big business opportunity in bridging the gap.

SmartPlanet: What does Carbon Sciences do?

BE: At our core we're a fuel technology company -- we develop technologies that produce fuel. Specifically, we're looking at technologies that produce liquid portable fuel -- gasoline. The biggest difference is it doesn't include petroleum.

If you consider that all the ramifications of the energy model that we have today -- how much of it we use and where we get it and who gets the money and what it does to our environment, particularly with the Gulf oil spill -- it's clear that it's a flawed system. There has to be a better way of doing this.

Is there any other way to do this without using petroleum? The answer is yes.

The technology is not new. People have been making liquid fuel for many years from gas, most principally natural gas, which actually started in World War II, by the Germans. Our particular technology is a CO2-based gas-to-liquids technology. While most GTL technologies produce and emit CO2, we actually use the CO2 as a feedstock.

There are three questions that need to be asked:

  1. Can you do it? Can it be demonstrated? In our case, the answer is yes.
  2. Can do you do it at scale? Can you make lots of it? The answer is yes, because of our feedstock.
  3. Can you make it commercially feasible? We're not sure, but we think so, and that's our hard work right now.

One of the reasons you don't see the big oil companies bragging about their GTL efforts is because it's not particularly sexy in terms of the environment. You produce a lot of CO2. But from a national security standpoint? It's spot on.

SmartPlanet: Why is GTL a viable alternative?

BE: We use about 140 billion gallons of gasoline every year. If you look at a process like ours, which takes carbon dioxide and natural gas as the feedstock, how much of it would you need to supply all the gasoline needed for one year in the United States? It would take 23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 586 million metric tons of CO2. That sounds like a lot.

For natural gas, the first piece of good news is that we have lots of it -- we don't have to buy it from anyone else. We use a lot of natural gas in this country and we know there's 23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Without competing with current consumption, and mitigating over half a million tons of CO2, we could produce enough gasoline in this country for a year.

Economically, what does that mean? Every single day, this country spends $1 billion on foreign petroleum.

Look, I understand the "drill, baby, drill" people. I don't agree with it, but I understand it. We're dealing with the problem today.

You look at solutions that can have an impact fairly quickly. The national crisis is not electricity; it's gasoline. All the solar and wind and everything else, that's great, and certainly speaks to environmental issues. What you can't do with solar is drive cars with it.

Ultimately, solar is probably the answer. If you can really harness the power of the sun for a day...but it's not going to happen anytime soon. If what we are doing [at Carbon Sciences] is a bridge to answer the immediate questions, then that would be great.

The other issue is the existing infrastructure. We really need a solution that fits into the existing infrastructure that we have. Any plan that [alters that] is fraught with problems.

SmartPlanet: Environmentalists might say that any solution that produces greenhouse gases isn't good enough.

BE: I think we need to be careful when we talk about CO2. The mere existence of CO2 is not the issue -- there's just too much of it. The planet needs it to survive. The bathtub is in danger of overflowing. Does the gasoline we make produce CO2? Of course. But does it take advantage of the CO2 emitted by the factories? Yes.

In a pithy, bumper sticker sort of way, we're turning pollution into energy. It all starts with CO2.

One of the issues is CCS, or sequestration, which captures it at the source and buries it. We think that's a bad idea, for several reasons. But we're saying hey, there's something better you can do with CO2.

It's taking greenhouse gases and transforming it back into gasoline.

SmartPlanet: So how will you get there? You're still a startup.

BE: We've been around since 2006. This particular focus on CO2-based GTL technology has been over the last year. All of the stuff before that led us to this, and we still own the IP on it.

We're in the R&D stage. A series of patents we've been filing are all part of this end-to-end solution that we will be unveiling in October, a lab-scale prototype of the process itself. We take CO2, methane from natural gas, mix it with a chemical catalyst and produce gasoline. It will be tubes of gasoline, milliliters of gasoline.

If you ran a big natural gas facility and said you were curious of what we're doing, this would seem attractive, we'll have [data] in March of next year. We're working toward a fully-developed commercial package.

We're in discussions right now with a number of strategic partners. It's going to be somebody in the field. It's going to be a natural gas facility. It might be here, it might be in Canada. Then we build a full-scale pilot plant that produces copious amounts of gasoline. Then we license the technology out.

The DOE [U.S. Department of Energy] knows what we're doing. In fact, they have contacted us and have asked us to apply for grants. We did, primarily because we thought the credibility and their seal of approval were good. We honestly don't need their money. Anything that brings attention to the issue is ultimately good for us.

We believe the technology stands on its own, independent of any regulation.

The conversations we've had with the big boys -- oil companies, coal people -- have been less about what this means from a regulatory standpoint than, "Hey, does it work?"

It allows you to take something that's nasty and unhelpful and not valuable and turns it into something quite valuable. It turns it into revenue.

Once we unveil a prototype, that'll be huge.

If you look at all of the efforts that are going on to address these issues -- there's some really smart work going on, exciting, worthwhile, innovative -- I am convinced that if you sat in a room and had everybody with a potential solution there and said "Show us what you got," I'm absolutely convinced that this technology -- because of it's immediacy, because of it's scale -- would be picked.

It will literally eliminate our need for petroleum, being co-located. There are enormous amounts of natural gas that are stranded or flared.

There are three major fossil fuels: petroleum, coal and natural gas. They all have the energy necessary to create the kinds of fuels that we need to move forward. Could we produce 140 billion gallons of gasoline without using petroleum, domestic or foreign? Absolutely. That's what I think is the promise of this.

SmartPlanet: And America stands to benefit.

BE: We're the Saudi Arabia of coal. We have it. It's just dirty. The fossil fuel that we have in abundance that's easy is coal and natural gas. We've got more carbon dioxide than we know what to do with because of coal.

There's a $19 billion facility that Shell is doing with natural gas in Cutter [UK] -- that's 35,000 jobs, a veritable city. We could have those jobs here.

Right now, there's over 250 million cars in the U.S. Those cars run on gasoline. And by the way, I'm a huge fan of Tesla [Motors, maker of electric cars]. I actually have my name on the list to buy one. And by the way, you have to ask how much carbon it takes to build a Tesla. A lot of it is being emitted to produce it. It's not a perpetual motion machine that doesn't require any sort of industrial process.

At some point we will be living in the Jetsons world, but what about those 250 million cars that run on gasoline? Ultimately, the solution is not an electric car. It's a solar-driven car. But we're working on something that can happen fairly quickly and have a major impact.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure