By Brionne V. Griffin
For Reporting Texas and the Austin American-Statesman
In an effort to curb carbon dioxide emissions from industrial plants, an Austin company has devised a unique solution: turning the greenhouse gas into harmless solids that can be sold commercially.
Skyonic Corp. expects to break ground this year on its first project, a $126 million facility that is designed to turn carbon dioxide generated by a San Antonio cement plant into products including sodium bicarbonate, which can be used as an antacid in cattle feed.
“Skyonic has spent the past seven years doing testing and development at pilot scale, and we are now entering our commercial phase of operation,” Joe Jones, founder, president and CEO of the company, said via email sent through spokeswoman Stacy MacDiarmid, who declined to make him available for an interview.
Scientists and engineers have wrestled for years with finding the best way to deal with industrial carbon dioxide emissions, which have been tagged as a major factor in global warming.
Efforts thus far have mainly focused on capturing CO2 in a power plant or factory’s flue gases, before it escapes into the atmosphere, and transporting it to sites such as geologic formations underground or deep in the ocean, where it can be stored.
The CO2 Carbon Capture Project, a coalition of large energy companies including Chevron and Shell, has been working since 2000 to improve storage technology, which it says is “an appropriate emissions reduction technology” to address CO2 emissions.
Jones says his company’s approach is better because the gas is recycled into solids at the plant site, avoiding the need to find suitable and safe storage sites and transport the CO2.
“Our investors have collectively invested over $2 billion in pump-it-in-the-ground sequestration efforts, and their universal verdict is that sequestration is prohibitively expensive, useful only in a few choice geologic spots, and fails to meet the low-energy penalty claims of the last 20 years,” Jones said.
Carbon dioxide occurs naturally in Earth’s atmosphere, where it captures heat from the sun and warms the planet. But burning of fossil fuels pumps additional large quantities of carbon dioxide into the air, trapping more heat. The so-called greenhouse effect increases global warming, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Carbon dioxide accounts for about 20 percent of the greenhouse gas effect, according to a report by NASA’s Earth Science news team. The U.S. is the second largest producer of CO2, after China.
Skyonic’s patented technology, called SkyMine, can be retrofitted to any large emitter and can capture other pollutants in addition to CO2, according to Jones.
Skyonic uses SkyMine technology to convert harmful emissions into harmless compounds. The process begins by directing the plant’s flue gases into the SkyMine device, where the carbon is removed and a chemical reaction turns CO2 into sodium bicarbonate, hydrocholoric acid and bleach.
The SkyMine pilot device is the size of two 50-foot trailers — the finished plant is expected to be larger — and is partially powered by the heat that flows through a plant’s chimney-like flues.
Skyonic received $28 million in federal grants to develop its technology and construct its facility. In addition, it is set to receive $80 million in loans and $39 million in equity, MacDiarmid said.
Skyonic’s investors include California real estate billionaire Carl Berg, Conoco Phillips, BP and Zachry Corp., the San Antonio parent of Capitol Aggregates Ltd., which runs the cement plant where SkyMine will be installed.
“Zachry Corporation invested accordingly because Skyonic Corporation presented to us a promising carbon-capture technology,” said Tara Snowden, Zachry spokeswoman. “The Capitol-SkyMine technology has the potential to mineralize carbon dioxide emissions as baking soda.”
MacDiarmid said the company is drafting contracts to sell the hydrochloric acid to companies for industrial uses and the bleach to municipal water-treatment plants.
Jones said other companies have expressed interest in his company’s approach but did not provide specifics.
Steve Clemmer, director of energy research for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., said he is not familiar with the Skyonic process, but said converting CO2 into minerals sounds like a good solution.
“The problem with carbon capture and storage is that the volume of carbon we need to capture and inject into geologic formations is huge,” Clemmer said. His organization advocates on climate change and other environmental issues. “The technology is there, but the infrastructure that would need to be built is enormous and costly.”
There are currently no power plants with fully integrated carbon capture and storage technology anywhere in the world, according to Clemmer. He also said in the past five years, a number of carbon capture and storage demonstration projects in the U.S. were canceled.
“Carbon capture and storage is moving in the opposite directions than it was a few years ago,” Clemmer said. “And that’s mostly for financial reasons.”
At the University of Texas, Steven Bryant, associate professor and director of the Geological CO2 Storage Research Project, has developed methods to address another issue with underground storage: concerns that some of the carbon dioxide will leak back into the atmosphere.
Bryant’s process requires three main steps. First, deep wells must be drilled in salt-water-filled formations. The salt water is pumped into a tank where the carbon dioxide is dissolved into it, and the mixture is injected back underground.
The process is akin to injecting carbonated water into the ground, Bryant said. And because the mixture is denser than compressed CO2 alone, it will not return to the surface.
“Nature already knows how to store oil in underground reservoirs,” Bryant said, “so we are making underground CO2 reservoirs that mimic this process.”
As for Skyonic’s approach, Bryant said: “We need to keep excess carbon out of the atmosphere if we are going to have a material effect on climate change. It takes several technologies at the same time to affect a worldwide problem.”
Reporting Texas is a digital media initiative of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. It showcases the reporting of undergraduate and graduate students and makes it available to other news outlets.
Image credit: Skyonic Corp.