Entrepreneurs Aim to Turn Carbon Into Gasoline

Whatever the world's governments decide to do about climate change, one thing seems certain: the value of carbon is going to rise. Government and industry are beginning to invest in technologies to capture carbon from their smokestacks, and entrepreneurs are beginning to figure out ways to recycle it. One of them is Carbon Sciences, a Santa Barbara, California, firm that says it has found an efficient way of turning carbon dioxide and water into methanol, a type of fuel that racing cars now use instead ofgasoline. (Although the fuel would produce carbon when it's burned, its net effect would be neutral, says the company, because carbon was used in producing it.) To make the fuel, Carbon Sciences uses enzymes similar to those that occur in nature. The firm has built a prototype methanol plant. The big question now is whether the process can be ramped up to large-scale manufacturing and made to produce gasoline. CEO Derek McCleish and President Byron Elton spoke with NEWSWEEK's Anita Kirpalani about how inventions like this might help in the battle against climate change. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How does your prototype work?
ELTON: Within the last year Naveed Aslam, our chief technology officer, developed and invented the technology that takes CO2 as its source of carbon and water as its source of hydrogen, and produces hydrocarbons, which are the building blocks for fuel. So with the prototype right now we are making methanol—a liquid explosive fuel.

What is the next step?
McCLEISH: We need to scale it up. We work in low pressure and low temperature so our scale-up cost is low. So the next step is a mini-pilot that will be developed in Santa Barbara too, from 2010 to 2011, which will produce gasoline this time. Gasoline is our main objective. Our main advantage is that our system allows our fuel to go directly in the same distribution channels and infrastructure as gasoline. We don't need to build new infrastructure.

But the fuel does produce carbon?
McCLEISH: Yes, it does. We take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and we make fuel out of it. We are recycling it. Our process is carbon neutral.

Does this mean we don't have to worry about emitting less carbon?
McCLEISH: We think we should emit less, of course. But it won't solve our problems, and people will not give up the lifestyle they have. When you consider a gallon of gas being burnt, the CO2 that is emitted is only partially the carbon footprint of the gas. There is a huge carbon footprint before you actually burn the fuel, which is linked to the exploration, the transportation, the refinery needed to produce gas. So our carbon footprint is lower because we don't need all that. We believe that the world should look at everything it can to reduce the footprint, but the world still needs portable fuel and the best way to have that is our system.

Isn't capturing carbon expensive? Some people say it doubles the cost of a coal power plant.
McCLEISH: Apparently the cost of carbon capturing is more around 35 percent. There are a lot of companies doing that, but that's not our business. We transform CO2 into fuel.

ELTON: We happen to agree with a lot of people who think that sequestration [capturing carbon and burying it underground] is probably not really a good idea. It prevents it from going in the air, but then if you are going to hide it somewhere, there are all kinds of questions on how and where you are going to hide it. Are you sure that it is not going to be released?

If it's expensive to capture and bury carbon, what will motivate companies to do it?
McCLEISH: Government. It is a political will of the world to make sure that we don't lose our future. Recessions come and go, but climate change stays. The U.S.A. will be a leader in climate change and technology, and the new administration seems to send the right signals about that. The most recent one is that the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] decided yesterday to make carbon a pollutant. It's major.

What is the advantage of your technology over biofuels?
ELTON: Our biggest asset is scale. You can't grow enough to make a big impact. But there is an unbelievable amount of CO2 available. Also, the fuel that we are making goes right back in the existing infrastructure. It is gasoline. It is diesel. So, for instance, if you are making biofuels, you can't use the existing supply chains or the existing pipelines because it corrodes the copper. It is a different kind of fuel. [What we do] is not a different kind of fuel. [It requires] no additional expenditure.

How expensive does the oil have to be for your system to be viable?
McCLEISH: Los Alamos [National Labs in New Mexico] says that they can do it for $4 a gallon. We believe we can do it for less. Because the key to our technology is about making the biocatalysts do their job as many times as possible [which reduces the need to replenish them, cutting costs]. Our work focuses mainly on that.

Would technologies such as this be of use to developing countries?
ELTON: This is not only an American problem, but a global one. The energy demand is driven by population growth especially in developing countries, in places that have emerging middle classes. Their focus is now on growth and on providing lifestyle and energy to their population. It's not environment. But they'll have to focus on it and do something about it.

Entrepreneurs Aim to Turn Carbon Into Gasoline | Tech & Science