The Carbon XPrize is on! Thirty-eight teams from seven countries are vying for the $20 million prize, awarded for the most innovative breakthrough technology that converts CO2 into commercial products. Calgary’s CleanCarbon Energy thinks it has a good chance of winning it all.
The competition grew out of concern that fossil fuels will continue to power the world’s economy for a very long time despite climate change mitigation. According to the International Energy Agency, fossil fuels comprise 82 per cent of global energy supply, with demand expected to grow 37 per cent by 2040.
The Carbon XPrize is sponsored by American energy producer NRG and the Canadian Oil Sands Industry Alliance (COSIA).
“The Carbon XPrize is harnessing global innovators to reimagine carbon and change it from a liability into a resource, from a waste into a valuable product,” said Dan Wicklum, COSIA chief executive.
“As a scientist, I know from experience that when you focus a challenge and incentivize smart people to think about how to address that challenge from different angles and different perspectives, good things happen. COSIA is excited about what’s going to come out of this challenge – good things are going to happen.”
Craig Pichach agrees. He is the oil and gas engineer who runs a production company by day and acts as team lead for CleanCarbon Energy in his spare time. Best case his team wins the prize, but he also hopes to attract the attention of a venture capitalist like Elon Musk.
“The Carbon XPrize kind of gives you that technology validation and the interest of the big players to get something funded,” he said in an interview.
The CleanCarbon technology is simple and, Pichach believes, cost-effective.
The process begins with chemolithoautotrophs, bacteria that consume carbon dioxide but don’t require oxygen, sunlight, or fresh water.
“The bacteria is powered by the oxidation of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) to sulphur or sulphites,” said Pichach. “The process uses brackish water so you can do it underground in depleted oil and gas reservoirs.”
CleanCarbon injects CO2 into produced water and pumps it through a well into the formation. The bacteria grows at an exponential rate in the reservoir and becomes a biomass, which is then pumped back to surface.
The company then sends it back underground and uses a very simple “super-critical water gasification” to create a hydrogen-rich syngas. This becomes a feedstock for any number of products.
“Right now we’re proposing going to methanol and then to poly-propolene and poly-ethylene – the basis for plastics,” said Pichach.
“If you want you can use the ExxonMobile MTG process to make gasoline or you can use Fischer-Tropsch to go to diesel or you can make ammonia. Inject the CO2 back in and make fertilizer. So you have all these manufacturing feedstock options or you can just burn it for power.”
The reason CleanCarbon thinks its process is cost-effective is that everything takes place downhole.
“We think you can do huge volumes fairly inexpensively compared to trying to do, say, a micro-algae pond at surface,” said Pichach.
“So when you look at micro-algae you can make it work but you need a pond the size of Slave Lake. Well, how would you ever keep the temperature correct? How would you ever keep it inoculated, how would you even build it so it’s exactly two meters deep – you can’t, it’s just not practical.”
The Calgary-based engineer thinks CleanCarbon’s future could include “a strategy where you’re taking CO2 from the atmosphere and you just run it on atmospheric CO2 and then even the gasoline is carbon balanced. That’s the long-term future goal.”
The competition opened for entries last Sept. and will conclude in four and a half years. Most of the Carbon XPrize teams are from the United States (20) and Canada (12). I tried to contact a number of them for interviews, but no replies as of publication time – perhaps engineers and scientists are too busy perfecting their technologies to speak to journalists. Nevertheless, I hope to bring you stories from other Carbon XPrize teams over that period.
This is important work that could change the way the world uses energy and manufactures the products we consume.
For now, I’ll leave you with these words from Sicily Dickenson, chief marketing officer for NRG: “Through innovation in carbon capture technology, we hope to challenge the world’s brightest minds to find a solution that helps solve emissions problems, and simultaneously creates viable products that we use every day.”