Amid the calls to capture carbon to save the climate, a Texas company is preparing to do that job for profit.
Instead of mining natural deposits of carbon found underground, the plant will capture the carbon emitted from making cement — a rich source — and use it to produce chemicals like sodium bicarbonate and hydrochloric acid by reacting it with rock salt.
“They’re on to something,” said Victor K. Der, an adviser to the Global CSS Institute, a nonprofit group that advocates carbon capture and storage as well as reuse.
“Carbon reuse is the holy grail,” he said. “If they can make it work as a business proposition, sure, why not?”
Dr. Der, a former official in the fossil energy program at the Energy Department, said that cement plants were a virtually free source of carbon dioxide. But the effectiveness of the technique will be limited by the size of the market for the products, Dr. Der said. And just as the other prominent forms of reuse, like pumping carbon dioxide into the ground for enhanced oil recovery, the market is small relative to the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by industry.
The plant, which received $28 million from the Energy Department, will capture 83,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year, a small burp in industrial terms. But because making those chemicals conventionally usually results in more carbon emissions, and these will be avoided, the company claims credit for another 220,000 tons. If regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency result in a carbon cap for Texas, Skyonic could also sell the credits.
“It’s the largest carbon-capture plant in the world that isn’t on the pump-it-in-the-ground cycle,” said Joe Jones, the president and chief executive. Most of the carbon goes into a solid mineral, sodium bicarbonate.
Cement plants are prolific producers of carbon dioxide; in addition to burning coal for energy, they release carbon when limestone is converted to lime. But Skyonic’s technique will also work in the smokestacks of electricity generating plants that run on coal or natural gas, the company said. It has already tried the process, in pilot scale, at a lignite-burning plant.
“It’s sort of crazy that on one hand, we’re digging up archaeo-carbon, and putting that into chemicals, and burning tons of coal to process it, and on the other hand, we’re worried about carbon dioxide in the air,” Mr. Jones said.
Sodium bicarbonate is used to make glass and a form of plastics, paints and paper; it can also be used to scrub the emissions of coal plants. Hydrochloric acid’s main use is in the manufacture of steel.
Investors include ConocoPhillips, BP, Northwater Capital and PVS Chemicals. The chemical company will buy some of the products. Hydrochloric acid is used in mining for gold and other materials, and demand is growing because it is also used in drilling in shale, which is widespread in Texas. Sodium bicarbonate is used to process uranium. Both the hydrochloric acid and the sodium bicarbonate are export products, and Skyonic expects to ship thousands of tons abroad.
The Skyonic project has some company; a coal-fired power plant in western Maryland recovers carbon dioxide for use in the food industry, and there is a strong market for carbon dioxide in oil recovery. But in those cases, the carbon dioxide is recovered as a gas, not a solid.
Matthew Wald for The New York Times
Photo Courtesey: John Davidson/Skyonic