Carbon Recycling: An Alternative to Carbon Capture and Storage

by Rowan Oloman, contributing author

Carbon capture and storage is being hailed as the answer to the globe’s most pressing question: What will we do with the 27 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted yearly from the burning of fossil fuels?

Touted as the most promising interim solution to deal with the greenhouse gas responsible for global warming, carbon capture and storage still remains unproven, costly and will not be commercially available for another 10-20 years. Meanwhile scientists are exploring alternatives to carbon capture and storage by capitalizing on CO2 as a commodity instead of treating it as a waste.

Twenty-seven billion tons of CO2 is already a hefty number, but energy-related CO2 emissions are projected to reach 43 billion metric tons per year by 2030, an increase of 60 percent. A report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that growing energy demands from emerging giants such as China and India coupled with a lack of cost-effective alternatives to fossil fuels means that by 2050, 77 percent of the world’s power still will be derived from fossil fuels.

“We will require immediate policy action and a technological transition on an unprecedented scale,” IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka said in Tokyo after releasing the report.

Carbon capture and storage, the process of capturing CO2 and storing it in deep geological formations in the ocean or as mineral carbonates, is being promoted by the IEA and others as the most promising technology to deal with fossil fuel-derived emissions. Not negating the role of alternative energies, the IEA is merely realistic about the enduring use of fossil fuels and the urgent need to deal with the resulting CO2.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced May 15 at the National Coal Council that $2.4 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will be used to expand and accelerate the commercial deployment of carbon capture and storage technology, including financing to train a generation of engineers and geologists to work in the field.

“To prevent the worst effects of climate change,” Chu said, “we must accelerate our efforts to capture and store carbon in a safe and cost-effective way.”

Governments in Europe, Australia, Canada and China also are investing in the technology. Nevertheless, several massive hurdles still stand in the way of full-scale carbon capture and storage deployment.

U.K. consulting firm McKinsey figures that adding carbon capture and storage to the next generation of European power plants could lift their price by up to $1.3 billion each. The firm’s analysis shows that the typical cost of a demonstration project is likely to be in the range of $80 to $120 per tonne of CO2 sequestered.

Legally, there are concerns whether CO2 transport and long-term storage present human- or ecosystem-related risks and who is responsible if a leak occurs. While progress is underway in some countries, no country has developed the comprehensive, detailed legal and regulatory framework necessary to effectively govern the use of carbon capture and storage.

No full-scale carbon capture and storage project that captures and sequesters CO2 from a coal-fired power plant exists. The IEA is hopeful that 10 full-scale demonstration plants will be running globally by 2015, meaning it might be 10 to 20 years before carbon capture and storage technology is readily available.

So why expensively transport and store the CO2 underground when it could be profitably recycled post-capture?

Researchers and start-up companies are investigating a range of CO2 conversion methods, said Larry Kristof, CEO of Mantra Energy. The company is gaining international recognition in carbon recycling.

“The market is open for innovation,” Kristof said. “It is likely that governments will soon legally mandate carbon capture from industrial plants, and there needs to be a cost-effective way to implement it.”

Mantra’s technology, the electro-reduction of CO2 (ERC), aims to take CO2 directly from industrial waste gases and convert it to formate salts, formic acid or both, which are valuable chemicals used in industrial applications. Formic acid also has the potential to lead in fuel cell development as a direct fuel and a fuel storage material for on-demand release of hydrogen.

The ERC technology could provide a net revenue of up to $700 per tonne of CO2 recycled, with a return on investment (ROI) previously forecast at 20 percent per year, depending on local costs.

Compared with carbon capture and storage, the ERC provides a positive ROI, not an unrecoverable cost. Plus, a demonstration ERC unit could be installed at a client’s premises within a year and a commercial plant within two years–much faster than for carbon capture and storage.

In a speech to the United States Senate, Margie Tatro, director of Fuel and Water Systems at Sandia National Laboratories, a U.S. Department of Energy research center that develops science-based technologies to support national security, advocates that carbon recycling is the way of the future.

“We must act now to stimulate this area of research and development,” Tatro said. “Other countries are exploring reuse and recycling of CO2, and it would be unfortunate if the U.S. became dependent on imported technology in this critical area.”

Carbon recycling options being developed globally vary. The range includes the biochemical conversion of CO2 into algal biofuel, the thermochemical conversion into methanol and the biocatalytic or solar photocatalytic conversion of CO2 to fuels. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, and some are more believable than others.

At this stage, what sets Mantra, and a handful of others, apart is that it has a publicly disclosed patent application backed up by several technical articles in reputable journals and already has established market interest for its products.

As fear of climate change grips the globe, businesses and governments are desperate to find an answer to the CO2 problem. Relying solely on carbon capture and storage is incredibly risky and, in many places, unworkably expensive. More imaginative thinking shows that the 27 billion metric tons of CO2 per year might represent a business opportunity.

A budding industry, carbon recycling for profit offers a viable alternative to carbon capture and storage programs. As a portfolio of solutions must be developed to address climate change, carbon recycling is destined to be at the forefront.

On the Net:
McKinsey site
Mantra Energy site:


Rowan Oloman is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Canada. She has a master’s degree in environmental management from the University of New South Wales and a bachelor’s degree in environmental geography from the University of Sydney. Oloman works as the director of several international conservation projects and as a researcher for green tech solutions.

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