SkyMine - Capturing Carbon for Profit

19 June 2011

Interview with

Joe Jones, Skyonic, Texas

Ben -   We are joined by Joe Jones who is from Skyonic in Texas. They've developed what they call a 'SkyMine', a system that not only extracts CO2 but actually turns it into something that they can sell.  Thank you ever so much for joining us Joe.

Joe -   It's a pleasure.

Ben -   How does the SkyMine actually work?

Smokestacks from a wartime production plant, World War II.Joe -   Skyonic Corporation has been working for 6 years on a SkyMine process to capture carbon dioxide from fluid gas and convert it into solid carbonate and bicarbonate minerals.  We do that by exploiting an ionic chemical property of carbon dioxide.  We add some acid gas that forms weak carbonic acid when it's dissolved in water.  We combine that weak acid with a strong base to form a neutral salt, just like you may have done in your high school chemistry laboratories.  We can make sodium carbonate, which is the washing soda that's used in detergents, sodium bicarbonate, the edible salt that can soothe your stomach, or we can make calcium or magnesium carbonates that form limestone or dolomites.  Also, we can precipitate calcium carbonate which makes up 40% of white paper among other things.

Ben -   So with the limestone versions and the precipitates and so on, that's a very good way to capture carbon that you can then bury in the ground again.  A good way for storage.  But with the other products, there's a market for those.  You can actually sell the result of recycling this waste.

Joe -   Indeed.  In the sodium carbonate and bicarbonate's market, there's a little over $10 billion of chemical product that is currently either mined from archaeo-carbon, which is releasing ancient sequestered CO2, or is made by synthesis techniques that use a great deal more energy. Thereby they generate more carbon footprint as well.

Ben -   Where does the base that you react it with come from?  Does that have to be mined?  Is it an expensive process to produce it in the first place?

Joe -   Well sadly there are no base mines that are available so you have synthesise it from salt and water itself.  If you take saltwater and energy, either in the form of electricity for electrolysis or using heat energy, you can force the neutral salt to split itself into hydrochloric acid and a very usable base.

Ben -   So there's obviously an energy cost in order to do the electrolysis in the first place, but I think there is an energy cost for all of the different carbon capture mechanisms we have.  At the absolute least, you need to increase the output of your power station by 20%, and I think some of them, as far as 90% - You're almost doubling the amount of energy you need to produce in the first place, just to capture back the carbon!  How efficient is the SkyMine?  How much extra energy do you need?

Joe -   The SkyMine does have a positive engineering leverage so that it does sequester more carbon dioxide than its operation generates.  This is an important thing for a carbon capture system to do.  Currently carbon capture and sequestration, as you mentioned, quotes in the 20% for the CC portion of carbon capture and sequestration.  However for the sequestration part they can get it to be over 45%.  Our first plant that is being built in San Antonio Texas is designed to achieve a 40% energy penalty, just under the competing CCS-amine technology.  With fundamental improvements, more research that we have underway, we have demonstrated in the laboratory that we are able to drive that below 20%.

Ben -   With the amine technology you're actually left with some quite nasty toxic chemicals and you've got to obviously purify the amines in the first place.  I guess one of the real advantages to this is that the products you're left with, not only is there a market for them, but also they're quite benign.

Joe -   Benign indeed.  Some 4 billion years ago a tremendous amount of limestone and other minerals were created from what was at that time, a predominantly carbon dioxide atmosphere.  As you likewise mentioned, that mineral sequestration is going on around us everywhere.  Here in Travis County Texas, there are some 450 pentilion tons of limestone that were once part of the atmosphere of the earth.

Ben -   Pentilion - that's unimaginable!

Joe -   It's a word you don't get to use in normal conversation.

Ben -   That brings me on to - how scalable is this?  Is this something where you could put it on any coal fired power plant in the world at the moment? Or are we still looking at a fairly small scale?

Joe -   The plant that we're building in San Antonio, the Capitol SkyMine plant, will be manufacturing 75,000 metric tons of CO2.  Scale is important because in the United States, we emit some 2.6 billion metric tons a year of carbon dioxide.  In theory though, the plants can be scaled effectively infinitely.  There's far more salt, water and room for minerals than there is carbon in the earth to burn.

Ben -   One of the complaints about green technologies, about technologies that capture carbon, is that it's not economically viable.  Obviously, you've found an excellent way around that.  But in the future let's say we have a SkyMine on every power plant and we're producing large quantities of these products, what happens if the market becomes completely flooded?

Joe -   Well, given the scale of the carbon emissions that we have, that would indeed occur.  At that point you would then be able to operate the plant simply for the purpose of sequestering CO2 and lay aside the minerals.  Or in the case of the example from your earlier interview, we could put the minerals back down inside a stripped coal seam for the purpose of sequestering it there.  But at that point you then cross into cost.  Right now, the US Department of Energy estimates that amine sequestration costs between $100 and $300 per ton to capture that way.  We estimate that we can arrive at a $25 to $50 range for that incremental cost past beyond markets.

Ben -   That's the remarkable difference and this sounds like fantastic technology.  What sort of time scale are we looking at before we'll see this turning up in different power plants?

Joe -   Our first large scale commercial plant, we've been running pilot plants here in Texas for the last 6 years, will go online in 2013.  Thereafter it can be replicated worldwide. About a 2-year construction time, 25-year plant life and we can be making a dent in carbon certainly inside the next 10 years.

Ben -   Well that's very good news.  I'm glad that we have these technologies to be optimistic about.  Thank you ever so much for joining us.  That's Joe Jones.  He's President and CEO of Skyonic over in Texas.

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