The Report

Why just capture CO2 emissions when you can turn them into cash?

Why just capture CO2 emissions when you can turn them into cash?

Posting in Technology | From Issue 17 May 5 & 12, 2014

Startup Skyonic is testing technologies that transform captured CO2 into bicarbonates, acids, even limestone. The big question: Can they be scaled?

If Joe Jones has his way, the limestone used in cement, paper and paint won’t be extracted out of the ground using explosives and heavy equipment in the future. Instead, it will come from carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions captured at factories around the world.

His big idea sidesteps traditional approaches to carbon capture and storage (CCS), a controversial technology just beginning to be demonstrated at a large scale. Instead, Jones hopes to transform CO2 emissions from factories, refineries and power plants into salable products. This will, in theory, help industrial polluters generate revenue while reducing emissions. "Instead of paying money to treat pollution, it allows the emitter to look at their carbon waste stream as another profit center,” he says.

A chemical engineer who worked for more than two decades in the semiconductor manufacturing industry, Jones is commercializing this vision through Austin, Texas-based startup Skyonic. The company's initial effort, a $125 million commercial-scale facility at Capitol Aggregates’s cement plant in San Antonio, will be operational later this year. In that project, Skyonic is using its first-generation technology called SkyMine to capture CO2 from the cement plant’s exhaust stream and turn it from a gas to a solid. The solids are processed into food-grade bicarbonate (otherwise known as baking soda) and hydrochloric acid.

If Skyonic can successfully scale its technology, a whole new market of carbon-negative products related to the paper, chemical and building materials industries could be born. “We’re mimicking nature, really,” says Skyonic’s director of communications Stacy MacDiarmid. “But instead of taking thousands of years, we’re doing it in minutes.”

The Capitol SkyMine facility will produce about 417 tonnes of baking soda — the equivalent of 19 dump trucks — every day. The baking soda, acid and bleach will then be sold, generating more than $50 million revenue and $28 million in earnings annually, according to Skyonic's estimates. The return on investment for installing the SkyMine technology takes about three years, MacDiarmid says.

Capitol Aggregates, owned by Zachry Corp., believes the startup’s experimental processes could put its cement plant ahead of any future government regulations that might limit CO2 emissions, says Tara Snowden, director of public and government affairs for Zachry.

Even as the Capitol project comes online, Skyonic is working on a second-act carbon capture and use (CCU) technology called SkyCycle. This approach uses thermolytic decomposition, not electrolysis, to generate the base needed for CO2 capture. That means it uses less energy and doesn't require expensive electric equipment. The end result? The ingredients for limestone.

Skyonic plans to build a small SkyCycle pilot at the same San Antonio facility as its SkyMine test during the first half of 2015. Eventually, that project should produce 11,000 tonnes of limestone per year from 5,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions — the equivalent of about 517 trucks per year.

While the total cost of the project hasn't been disclosed, $500,000 in grant money awarded to Skyonic by Canada’s Change and Emissions Management Corporation in April 2014 will be put toward construction.

The SkyCycle technology can convert emissions into an array of products including hydrochloric acid, which can be used in enhanced oil recovery and other industrial markets; and calcium carbonate, or limestone, which can be used to make paper, glass, paint, PVC pipe and cement.

The two Skyonic technologies cater to different markets, although theoretically they can co-exist at the same plant. SkyMine produces carbonate products that can be sold to relatively high-dollar markets. SkyCycle, on the other hand, will serve larger emitters and produce a different set of products with a broader market reach, Jones says.

One example is hydrating limestone (aka PCC), used in 40 percent of the white paper market, Jones says. The global bicarbonate market is about $1 billion, while the limestone market is upwards of $390 billion, according to Skyonic's projections.

Skyonic isn’t the only company pioneering the CCU industry. Other startups are building demonstration projects that turn carbon into biofuels, says Mackinnon Lawrence, research director at Navigant Research. LanzaTech, founded in 2005, converts carbon monoxide-containing gases produced by industries such as steel manufacturing and oil refining — as well as gases generated by forestry and agricultural residues, municipal waste and coal — into fuel and chemical products.

While CCU is a nascent industry, the technology can work under the right conditions. “You have to have a strong regulatory environment, a country where it’s going to cost a lot of money for companies to emit CO2,” Lawrence says.

There are still risks, of course. Scaling these types of projects require large and sustained amounts of capital investment, engineering can be a challenge and economic feasibility largely hinges on government policy. 

CCS, the larger cousin to CCU, receives a tiny amount of investment dollars compared to what's been put toward clean energy generation technologies. In 2012, total global investment in CCS was $4.3 billion compared to $254 billion for all other clean energy, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. 

“It’s one thing to invest in something like Facebook, which is virtual,” Lawrence says. “But with these types of projects, there’s a lot of physical infrastructure that gets put into the ground.”

Policy is also a big impediment with these types of plays, particularly in the United States. “There’s a lot of talk of cap and trade, and it’s been going on for several years now, but there’s nothing really to hang your hat from an investment standpoint,” Lawrence notes.

Still, investors are circling companies like Skyonic. BlueCap Partners, Cenovus, Toyo-Thai Corporation Public Company, NorthWater Capital, NRG, ConocoPhillips, BP, GE, Energy Technology Ventures and Silicon Valley venture capitalist and real estate titan Carl Berg have together invested about $62 million in the company. Skyonic also received a $28 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, which it is still drawing from, MacDiarmid says.

Image: Flickr/Ian Barbour

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure