7 companies to watch in carbon capture and storage

Oil barrels
ShutterstockB Studio
Oil barrels? Not quite what we had in mind.

Reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is critical for achieving the aims of the Paris Agreement produced at COP21 — keeping a global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius this century, and driving efforts of a 1.5 C limit above pre-industrial levels. But much of the damage already has been done; seasonally adjusted concentrations of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere have risen dramatically in the past half century and continue to creep upward.

Carbon dioxide has become a major business liability, decreasing a firm's value by $212,000 for every 1,000 metric tons produced, according to KPMG.

And while the world pivots to embrace renewable energy, carbon likely will continue to burn to meet the world’s energy demands for the foreseeable future. That’s why carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology can play a key role.

CCS works by trapping CO2 at its emission source, transporting it to a storage location — often deep underground — and then isolating it to keep it from the atmosphere. Additionally, the use of CCS with renewable biomass is one of the few abatement technolo­gies that can be used in a "carbon-negative" mode ­— effectively taking carbon out of the atmosphere.

Granted, there has been some reported mismanagement of government-backed CCS projects in Mississippi and elsewhere, but the technology itself remains promising.

"CCS technologies could make ‘low-carbon-emission’ coal a reality," Noah Deich, founder and executive director at the Center for Carbon Removal, told GreenBiz. "Many argue that there is a lot more to ‘clean’ than carbon emissions, and CCS doesn't address the non-climate challenges for coal."

Most current CCS techniques are uneconomic because they consume too much energy to sequester the carbon, so they have yet to be deployed at scale. Yet startups and big companies alike are working to make CCS both viable and profitable. Here are seven companies to watch in this space:

Startups

Global Thermostat

Co-founded by Graciela Chichilnisky, an architect of the Kyoto Protocol's carbon market, and Peter Eisenberger, founder of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Global Thermostat has developed a proprietary technology that uses low-cost leftover process heat to grab carbon pollution from power plants — which then can be sold back to other companies as a power source. This technology could help make new or legacy fossil fuel power plants more eco-friendly, the company claimed, and also be used to to reduce impacts from polluting cement smelters, refineries and other industrial operations.

The technology turns the traditional equation of "more energy equals more emissions" on its head — in this case, more energy produced equals more carbon reduced. This process can remove 5 pounds of carbon dioxide per kWh of electricity, the company estimated, as opposed to U.S. coal-fired power stations which emit 2 pounds of carbon dioxide for every kWh of electricity created.

CO2 Solutions

Conventional CCS technology relies on the use of energy-intensive chemical processes that erect significant economic barriers to widespread deployment, while also creating  some negative environmental impacts thanks to toxic chemicals involved in the process. CO2 Solutions takes an alternative approach by using a powerful carbon management catalyst — the natural enzyme carbonic anhydrase. This enzyme exists in all living organisms and efficiently manages carbon dioxide during respiration. In an industrial CCS system, the enzyme can be used as a catalyst to quickly, cheaply and efficiently absorb carbon with minimal energy expenditure, the company claimed. Additionally, the technology leverages existing solvent-based gas scrubbing approaches already common in industry.

Carbon Engineering

Carbon Engineering’s technology is based on a 100-year-old industrial process made up of well-understood and existing technology, integrating an air contactor and a regeneration cycle for continuous capture of atmospheric carbon dioxide and production of pure carbon dioxide. The air contractor absorbs atmospheric carbon into a capture solution to produce a liquid that is rich in carbon dioxide, which can be sold and used in industrial applications and/or permanently sequestered deep underground.

Climeworks

The Climeworks CCS technology is based on a cyclic adsorption and desorption process on a new filter material, known as a "sorbent." During adsorption, atmospheric carbon is chemically bound to the sorbent’s surface and, once saturated, the carbon is driven off the sorbent by heating it to 100 C and delivering high-purity gaseous carbob dioxide. This carbon dioxide-free sorbent can be reused for many adsorption and desorption cycles. Because around 90 percent of the energy demand can be supplied by low-temperature heat, the process is relatively cheap — and only a small amount of electricity is needed for pumping and control purposes.

Big companies

Shell

Shell has several CCS pilot projects around the world underway, including the world’s largest CCS project, in Alberta, Canada. Quest, the result of a partnership between Shell, Canada Energy and Chevron, is a fully integrated CCS project designed to capture, transport and store deep underground more than a million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Quest will capture one-third of the emissions from Shell’s Scotford Upgrader, which turns oil sands bitumen into synthetic crude that can be refined into fuel and other products, Shell said. The carbon dioxide then is transported through a 40-mile long pipeline and injected more than a mile underground below multiple layers of impermeable rock formations. Quest is the first commercial application of CCS in the oil sands industry.

Chevron

Chevron is leading a CCS project at the Gorgon gas fields off the coast of Western Australia, where natural gas will travel through undersea pipelines to a liquefied natural gas plant on nearby Barrow Island. Once injection operations are at full capacity, the company said, each year 3 to 4 million tons of naturally occurring carbon dioxide produced with the natural gas will be captured and injected into a deep sandstone formation around 1.5 miles beneath the island. In this venture, Chevron is joined by Shell and ExxonMobil as partners.

NRG Energy

NRG Energy has partnered with JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration to develop a commercial-scale post-combustion CCS project at NRG's WA Parish generating station southwest of Houston, Texas. This project is designed to capture around 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from a 240 MW slipstream of flue gas, and use or sequester 1.6 million tons of this greenhouse gas annually, NRG said. This will be the largest post-combustion carbon capture project installed on an existing coal-fueled power plant. While coal in the U.S. may be in decline, it’s still widely deployed in China and India — and this technology could help reduce the negative environmental impacts of coal-fired plants.