We’ve all heard it called “the boob tube” or “the idiot box.” For chemical engineer Joe Jones, however, the simple act of watching television led to an incredibly smart idea.
A few years ago, Jones and his sons were watching a show on the Discovery Channel about the possibility of traveling to Mars. An expert came on to talk about techniques to dispel carbon dioxide breathed out by astronauts—but the expert had it wrong.
The best way to get rid of CO2, Jones told his boys, would be to mix it with other chemicals to create sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda.
He conducted a Google search, which referred him to a 1973 textbook. By coincidence, Jones already knew the book. He had bought it for a class at the University of Texas in his student days. In fact, it was on the shelf directly behind him.
Jones opened the book to reveal the passage he wanted, underlined years earlier in his student days. Call it a “made for TV” moment.
Jones went on to found Skyonic , a carbon-capture startup that uses technology to harness 90 plus percent of the carbon dioxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide and other noxious materials from smokestacks and turn it into industrial minerals. The baking soda produced by its SkyMine system is clean enough to put into cakes, but most likely it will get used for things like drywall.
The Department of Energy gave Skyonic $25 million in 2010 to build a commercial-scale SkyMine prototype.
Scientists for years have pondered different techniques for capturing and storing gases like carbon dioxide. Carbon sequestration—stuffing it underground in caves—has its appeal, in that geologic structures can hold huge amounts of gases.
Carbon dioxide can even be injected into oil fields to help force more fuel to the surface. The challenges, however, are legion. You try stuffing billions of cubic feet of gas into a cave and keeping it for over 200 years: it’s the ultimate challenge in soda bottling. Underground sequestration in most instances won’t perform an additional, beneficial task like enhanced oil recovery. As a result, it will be expensive.
Although advocates want to see 850 carbon capture plants worldwide by 2030, only nine small, experimental ones have been built to date.
At the other end of the spectrum, companies like LanzaTech OPX Biotechnologies say they can convert carbon monoxide and similar gases into liquid fuel. An equally impressive idea, but one that will likely take quite a bit of scientific fine-tuning.
That brings us back to mineralization. The chemical processes for converting carbon dioxide into powders like sodium bicarbonate is fairly well established. Not to mention the bonus of winding up with a byproduct you can sell. SkyMine will ultimately cost less than digging minerals out of the ground.
We believe we have costs that are below the miners,
Jones said. “When you can get below the costs of pulling it out of the earth, that’s pretty good.” Other companies like Calera and Carbon Sciences are moving toward the same goal. In the meantime, stay glued to your TV.
(Image © ecomagination)
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