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Anne Butterfield

Anne Butterfield

Posted: November 9, 2009 12:23 PM

Boulder Start-up to Profit on Atmospheric CO2 in Manufacturing

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Everyone loves chemistry; it's the difference between Pero and real coffee, Morton's and sea salt. It's the magic between Tracy and Hepburn.

But on the larger scale, we take chemistry for granted and it's killing us. The earth has an insidious chemical change going on through the vast majority of its surface area where the oceans meet, belly to belly, with the sky. Our skies, now laden with unusually high and accelerating levels of carbon dioxide, are tainting our oceans with carbonic acid in a process called acidification. It's a reaction we learned about in high school chemistry class, so there's no real debate about it. And some forms of sea life are already beginning to falter.

In the Monaco Declaration, marine scientists revealed that in as little as four decades our oceans may be too acidic to support the formation of shells, or even the plankton and corals on which our oceans' food webs rely.

Our problem with burning fossil fuels really is the carbon dioxide, not just the climate havoc it creates, and this harm cannot be mitigated by much ballyhooed notions of geo-engineering.

Now, aren't you ready for a little good news?

How about a plan to reduce atmospheric CO2 at industrial scale in a safe and economically attractive scheme? At New Sky Energy, a new start-up here in Boulder, a Fairview High graduate named Deane Little has developed a technology for converting waste salt (from agricultural runoff or flue gas desulfurization), processing it with water electrolysis to yield oxygen, hydrogen, a strong acid and a strong base. That last one is the key -- the base naturally attracts CO2 out of the air and traps it in crystals which can be used as high-value filler for countless common products like glass, plastics, dry wall, bricks, asphalt and concrete. Those crystals can make products which are up to 40 percent stored CO2.

NewSky's CO2 collection comes with the production of four marketable products. The sale of the oxygen, acid and base (and its CO2 compounds) can subsidize the production of the hydrogen to one-third of the price point goal set by the Department of Energy, according to Little.

And hydrogen is the Holy Grail of a clean energy economy, that liquid energy storage device able to power cars and motors without emitting pollution.

All the New Sky plan needs for perfection is clean electricity to power its reactor. Fortunately, as many grid operators will glumly tell you when discussing DOE's plan for 20 percent wind by 2030, there are times when there is too much wind power for the grid to happily accept. That is when operators do something called "curtailment" of the turbines, and that is when New Sky's technology can and should run.

Wouldn't we like to have the problem of excess carbon-free power on the grid to clean up brackish waste water, recycle batteries, sequester CO2 and store energy?

It's a virtuous cycle, one that Little says "seizes on a missed opportunity that's been sitting right in front of us." And it has come just as our atmospheric level of CO2 has gone well past the level of 350 parts per million that can safeguard healthy climate and oceans.

Policy makers should be considering CO2-reduction technologies like New Sky's (and like Natural Terrestrial Sequestration another Boulder brand of atmospheric CO2 reduction that your humble scribe has covered). Both beat the scheme known as carbon capture and storage, or CCS, as touted by the coal industry.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for American Progress are pressuring the Obama Administration to push money into CCS, the abstruse plan to draw CO2 out of smokestacks, pressurize it into a liquid and inject it into stone formations over a mile underground, a process that requires up to one-third extra coal-fired energy and leaves communities vulnerable to explosions, earthquakes and leaks of CO2 which can produce fouled waters and asphyxiate humans and animals.

Oh, and CCS is really expensive, too, and most CCS proposals have been shelved for that reason. Nonetheless there is a proposal for a new 750 megawatt coal plant in Linden, New Jersey, with a plan to pipe its CO2 70 miles offshore to be injected into the seabed. If it leaks, it leaks into the ocean, acidifying it, perhaps catastrophically, at astonishing cost to rate and tax payers.

Because underwater leaks of CO2 are likely to go undetected, a CCS installation near any ocean is the apex of stupidity.

Carbon dioxide should be stored as a solid not a liquid. Now that is better living through chemistry.

New Sky's technology does not lessen our need to decommission coal plants as soon as possible. It just gives us a hope to get our atmospheric CO2 levels which are now at 390 parts per million back below 350ppm as Dr. James Hansen has strongly urged.

New Sky Energy has been named as a finalist for the Rocky Mountain Clean Tech Open. We wish them well and hope they'll be up against many other terrific problem solving ideas. We need all we can get.

A version of this column ran in the Boulder Daily Camera