CO2: Why Bury the Treasure?
Capturing carbon and storing it underground is so old. A new generation of start-up believes recycling CO2 is the future.
Juergen Puetter could be labelled a shopaholic in renewable energy circles. A few years ago, the president of Aeolis Wind Power began locking up land deals in British Columbia for wind power projects, only to realize he was spending considerable time and money on a resource the province didn’t need.
Sure, B.C. could use some of it. But Puetter overshot the mark, acquiring a relatively large pipeline of projects that had a limited market to sell into, either because of a lack of power demand or insufficient grid capacity.
Then one evening, while sharing a few glasses of wine with a friend on his sailboat, it struck him: Why sell into the grid? Why fixate on electricity as the end product?
The answer, in his mind, was to use that electricity to produce renewable fuel, tapping into a resource the province and its local natural-gas industry had no shortage of: carbon dioxide—the greenhouse gas most responsible for human-caused climate change.
Puetter saw the potential of using electricity from his wind turbines (or even buying low-carbon, off-peak electricity from the provincial grid) to power electrolysers that produce hydrogen from water. He would take that hydrogen and chemically combine it with CO2 to produce methanol, an easily transportable liquid fuel that is also a building block for a variety of petrochemicals.
In other words, Puetter saw tremendous opportunity in turning what has been traditionally viewed as carbon waste, to be buried out of sight, into what is increasingly seen as carbon treasure.
“There’s a near-infinite supply of CO2 that I can get for next to nothing, and I can use that greenhouse gas as fuel,” said Puetter, who created a company called Blue Fuel Energy to commercialize the approach.
He calls his fuel “liquid electricity” and, using a process that can be licensed from Exxon Mobil, he’s also considering making a renewable form of gasoline from locally harnessed CO2.
The idea of recycling CO2 into something useful is beginning to catch on, with rising oil prices and ongoing concerns about climate change driving new innovations. Clean technology startups are seeing industrial CO2 as a key ingredient in a number of products, from methanol and formic acid to “green” cement and biofuels made from plants and algae.
Appearing to be losing momentum—if not favour—is the conventional approach that views CO2 as a pollutant that needs to be captured, compressed and pumped into deep storage underground.
So-called carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, has for years been championed as a must-have approach to keeping climate change in check. Indeed, the International Energy Agency’s roadmap for keeping global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius anticipates that one fifth of the world’s required emission reductions will come from CCS projects.
This is the fossil fuel industry’s preferred path. Critics, however, say it perpetuates the status quo of burning coal and natural gas for electricity, and it both protects and further entrenches a multitrillion-dollar global infrastructure built over several decades, as well as the carbon economy it supplies.
So far, however, talk of CCS has been largely that—talk. There are dozens of projects around the world in various stages of planning and development, but tough economic times and fading government support for climate action—expressed by the persistent lack of carbon pricing in most countries—has led many CCS projects to fall by the wayside.
Industry won’t cover the cost of these expensive projects alone, and debt-strapped governments are backing away for now. Not surprisingly, those CCS projects that are surviving are the ones that pump CO2 underground to recover more oil from aging wells.
“Every major CCS project in the world has been practically abandoned, and I’m not sure I’ll live long enough to see conventional CCS really take off in North America,” said Paul Woods, chief executive of Algenol Biofuels of Bonita Springs, Florida.