Leading carbon capture specialist CarbonFree bypasses one of the major roadblocks to scalability and is on its way to accelerate the decarbonization of industry and other hard-to-abate sectors.
On the market for over 15 years now, the Texas-based carbon capture company is among the earliest commercial adopters of the climate solution and is today among the few businesses in the industry to turn a profit.
We sat down with Martin Keighley, CEO of CarbonFree, to discuss what makes its SkyCycle technology stand out, what the main difficulties in the industry are and what the future of carbon capture might look like in the years to come.
CarbonFree has a very ambitious goal of capturing 10% of industry CO2 emissions. How do you actually plan on doing that?
Yes, it’s a big, bold goal of ours that we have by 2050. I think we put that together, because it’s saying that, even with an ambitious goal for what we think is a great technology, there’s still a lot more to be done. So, we invite everybody else to be part of this.
It’s actually with SkyCycle, which is our second-generation technology, which has the ability to be both a CCU [carbon capture and utilization] and a CCS [carbon capture and storage] technology so we can enter and get people capturing carbon today, with highly profitable CCU making precipitated calcium carbonate. But the same technology can make low grade calcium carbonate. So, think of it as synthetic limestone, rocks, and dust, which can be stored geologically, but on the surface without all the infrastructure challenges of pipelines and deep wells, because we’re making limestone which is very stable.
So, the real growth ultimately, for 2050 will be large scale sequestration projects. But the first rollout is going to be highly profitable CCU plants. It’s very much a technology which can evolve and expand. That’s how we’d address the big lodge to abate steel, cement and other large emitters.
Is it up to the emitters and the separate plants to decide whether they want CCU or CCS?
CCU makes more sense for the smaller quantities of up to several hundred thousand tons a year of captured CO2, which covers a lot of the early goals and aims that people have set today for 2030. The point of our CCU operation SkyCycle is that it can be zero capital and zero OpEx for the emitter, because, in its own right, it is a profitable operation, which essentially confirmed itself. And that makes it very different from other carbon capture players, which are very, very heavily dependent on subsidies.
How does the storage part of it fit in?
Let’s take an example of a steel plant, and you build a SkyCycle next to it. So literally, we co-locate normally on that land, and then taking the flue gas straight from their chimney, we make calcium carbonate, which is limestone. At this point, we’ve mineralized the CO2 permanently. If you think about downhole wells, that’s what you’re trying to do over 100 years is convert that CO2 into limestone. We do it instantaneously on the surface, and then we just store it on land.
It can be either on their site in a disused quarry or in a landfill. Thus, it’s much simpler, much more stable, and secure than all the pipeline infrastructure. CarbonFree offers a completely different proposition to that, which we think is going to be a game changer.
Is there anything else that sets SkyCycle apart from the competition, besides the fact that you can literally transform CO2 on site?
It is that fact that it’s really the only technology, which is both a CCU and a CCS, so it covers the whole capability of CCUS. We’re very focused on the industrial hard-to-abate sectors, which tend to be the sectors that quite a lot of other technologies are shying away from.
And also, once CarbonFree does mineralization, a lot of people are based on lower-grade sort of cement and concrete, but we make precipitated calcium carbonate, which essentially is a very pure form of the chemical grade of limestone. It is used in paper, plastics, paints, etc., as a filler. The beauty is it doesn’t really decompose, unlike, for example, making synthetic fuel, which when you burn, the CO2 is going to get released again.
It locks it up because it’s the particles of calcium carbonate which are being used as a filler. So even our CCU play is actually a permanent storage solution. But the beauty of PCC is it’s a highly valuable specialty chemical, it sells for around $300 to $1,000 a ton, which allows us to run the CCU very profitably. We actually don’t need things like 45Q. While it’s a nice additional to accelerate deployment, we have a successful proposition without that.
Where in the US and in the world is CarbonFree’s technology available right now?
We have a first-generation plant here in San Antonio, Texas, the technology is linked to a cement plant and is focused on making baking soda, sodium bicarbonate.
The reason that we’re not scaling that technology is because of the benefits from the other technology. It doesn’t provide a storage solution as it decomposes and it’s a small market. But we run our business profitably today and CarbonFree is somewhat unique in that sense, as I’m not sure anybody else in the carbon capture business can claim the same at this point.
We’re now ready to roll out our second-generation SkyCycle, which is the calcium carbonate. And we’re currently working with several partners to place the first plant and basically large industrial hard-to-abate sectors, like steel, cement refining. BP Ventures is one of our investors and has been for a long time.
Having been on the market longer than most other carbon capture companies, can you share a little bit about how your first-generation technology SkyMine came about so early on?
Joe Jones is our original inventor and also our CTO today. Joe has been working on this for nearly 18 years and was well ahead of his time, a lot of people were really interested. And then in 2008-2009, we got a grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) as part of the American Recovery Act. We were the only grant recipient to still be going and running a profitable business today, and we’re very proud of being a good example of a grant success story, especially given all the funding at the moment.
So, we built our first-generation SkyMine, as the technology was essentially ready to go, SkyCycle wasn’t. Once it was built out, it became operational in the latter part of last decade, and we’re now fully running and profitable. Then the last couple of years this huge explosion in interest in carbon capture meant we were looking for what the big, scalable solution was. And that’s what turned our mind to our second-generation technology, which was well developed. CarbonFree has over 90 patents covering the IP for both our technologies.
Most of the development was done in conjunction with Southwest Research Institute. They’re a big global R&D center here in San Antonio, and another reason why we’re here. And we’re ready now to start deploying and capturing CO2 within the next two years with the right industrial partner.
Are you looking to offer your technology to other emissions-intensive sectors as well?
There are certain criteria, which are easy to look at in terms of strength of CO2 and temperatures, heat availability, and the beauty of SkyCycle is that it’s pretty forgiving on the flue gas. So quite a lot of other technologies require you to have a very clean CO2 flue gas, because it poisons that process. We can take dirty flue gas with all sorts of contaminants, because of the nature of our process, we scrub those out as well. So yeah, we’re very open to exploring all sorts of different industries.
Industrial point source is what we’re looking at, we’re not after transport-based CO2 emissions or anything like that. Some of the conversations we are having are with steel makers, cement factories, refineries, glass manufacturers. We’re also talking to some of the energy transition sectors like hydrogen, renewable natural gas from landfills, etc.
Since you’re based in Texas, what do you think about the state’s prospects of becoming a major carbon capture hub?
Texas is a significant emitter; it’s got a lot of large industries and companies here. I think with the rolling momentum there is a good chance of it becoming a hub for carbon capture. One of the beauties of carbon freeze technologies is that we disconnect the need to have the geology, because the appropriate geology for underground storage doesn’t exist everywhere.
But Texas does have some of that geology and has the oil and gas history, so it will tend to leverage that. But the beauty of carbon freeze technologies like SkyCycle is we can put it anywhere, including all those places where that infrastructure and that geology doesn’t exist, because we literally park it next to your plant.
What do you believe are the main setbacks on the road to decarbonization of industry at the moment?
I think in some cases, it’s the inertia of making a decision. It’s almost like the size of the problem is so big, and the number of options now is starting to become so big, that companies have got to be careful not to fall into the old “paralysis by analysis” sort of thing, where there’s a temptation just to analyze every single option. The reality is that companies just need to jump on and start.
And that’s very much where we are, because we can start with a 50,000 to 100,000 ton side unit, which allows companies to get going, and then they can scale that further or look at other technology options. Some large emitters may even use multiple technologies. But we’re very focused on saying we’re ready, you don’t need to keep thinking about it. Because we’re a very capital-light process, and it’s not a large investment decision.
As CarbonFree, we can invest capital to build a plant, because of the returns we get as a chemical producer, we can take away the capital problem of decision making, and we can take away the large operating cost, because effectively we cover that by our chemical plant operation.