Green

Will CO2 become the next hot commodity?

While most of us have come to think of CO2 as a problem, some see it as a potentially lucrative market opportunity. Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Carbon Sciences is one company asking the question: Why try to bury the ubiquitous greenhouse gas when you can just as easily convert it into a commercially valuable product?

The company has designed a low-cost technology, dubbed GreenCarbon, that combines captured CO2 with water and tailings, the waste mineral products from mining operations, to produce precipitated calcium carbonate (PCC) — a useful intermediary with a wide range of applications in the consumer goods, construction and agricultural sectors. Because it uses cheap raw materials, GreenCarbon is an attractive alternative to conventional PCC technologies, which use expensive materials like limestone and are often much more energy-intensive.

According to CEO Derek McLeish, products using PCC, which include everything from toothpaste and paper to building materials, make up a $12 billion market in the U.S. — which offers plenty of room for growth. Most of that growth will be due to increased worldwide demand for paper, he says, a resource-intensive industry that could consume up to 70 percent of all PCC produced. Different grades of PCC are also priced differently; the cost can vary from $5 a ton to $1,000 a ton.

Carbon Sciences has a mobile prototype of GreenCarbon up and running in a solar-panel equipped lab truck to show off the technology, and it plans on building a mini-pilot system within the next 2 to 3 years to begin scaling up. A commercial-scale demonstration will then follow. Though he didn’t reveal any names, McLeish told me his company had already formed strategic partnerships with several major U.S.-based firms in the paper and pharmaceuticals industries.

The company shuns geologic and ocean storage, arguing, as have many others, that sequestration remains a costly, untested emission-reducing technology that has yet to prove its commercial value over the long term.

Carbon Sciences’ GreenCarbon, on the other hand, is relatively cost-effective, has a low energy requirement and produces an inert, environmentally benign material that can be incorporated into higher value products — though it may not capture CO2 in quite the volume CCS-equipped power plants would in the short term.

Most large-scale CCS projects are currently being funded by government agencies like the DOE, which just committed $1.3 billion to supporting more R&D, and large corporations, like Exxon Mobil, which are more willing to expend some of their considerable resources on such a risky bet. The more alluring business model presented by Carbon Sciences and like-minded competitors, such as Skyonic and Calera, could turn the tide away from geological sequestration.

The company secured a first round of funding from private investors last year and plans to raise a second round in the near future. McLeish was mum on the details but, given his firm’s manufacturing angle, we can assume the funding ranged in the millions of dollars.

updated: Dan Whaley, CEO of Climos, asked me to clarify that ocean iron fertilization (OIF) is very different from CCS since it doesn’t involve actually capturing carbon dioxide. It is therefore much cheaper: Whaley conservatively estimates OIF’s price around $5 a ton, versus $40 – 80 a ton for CCS. My apologies for the error. Also, Russ George, CEO of the once defunct Planktos, has told me his company is back online.

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