The Obama administration wants states to cut back on carbon emissions, but doing that has always been a thorny problem. While carbon is a byproduct of almost everything we do, capturing and storing it is expensive. For years, the goal has been to figure out how to make that process cheaper, but more recent efforts take a different approach, with the focus shifting from storing carbon to using it.
On a recent spring morning, Karen Wawrousek led a tour of her lab at the Western Research Institute, on the outskirts of Laramie.
"The CAT process takes carbon dioxide, feeds that to bacteria and we use that to make biofuels," Wawrousek explained, holding up a flask of off-white liquid, full of what are called chemoautotrophic (CAT) bacteria. Exactly what strain of bacteria, Wawrousek declined to share, because that information could be very valuable someday. If Wawrousek and her colleagues can demonstrate their process works, it would mean that instead of carbon emissions going up the smokestack at power plants, they could be captured and converted into biodiesel, which can be used in cars, trucks and trains.
"You’re using the carbon twice, basically, before you release it," Wawrousek says.
If the biodiesel displaces conventional diesel, that should reduce the amount of carbon that ends up in the atmosphere, while at the same time, making capturing carbon much more attractive to utilities, like Tri-State Power and Generation.
"We need to have more options available to manage carbon. We think that carbon can be viewed not as a waste, but as an asset," says Lee Boughey, a spokesman for Tri-State.
There are already hundreds of companies researching new ways to utilize carbon, but Tri-State would like to see even more. To that end, it’s sponsoring a competition focused on "carbon recycling" with a $10 million prize.
"What we’re really interested in is: what are the biological, catalytic, other processes that are available to be able to take carbon emissions, carbon dioxide, and turn that into products that people use every day?" Boughey says.
Some might cringe at the idea of buying our way out of climate change, but he points out that cleaning up carbon for its own sake hasn’t worked: companies have never been interested in spending money to lock away carbon underground for the rest of eternity. But the new "carbon utilization" market is attracting plenty of attention.
"There’s billions and billions, if not trillions, of dollars of market share to be had in this business," says Chris Elrod, Director of Finance for the Norwegian power-plant company Sargas.
Sargas is currently working on a full-scale commercial plant along Texas coast with built-in carbon capture. Elrod says the plant will capture more than 90 percent of its carbon emissions, which will then be sold to a nearby oil field. Pumped underground, carbon dioxide boosts oil production and, in the process, some of it gets trapped, effectively sequestering it.
"It’s not completely, sort of, energy neutral, but we think it’s actually a very efficient way to utilize energy," Elrod says.
Exactly how efficient is an open debate. Capturing and re-using carbon — "carbon utilization" - is all the rage - but at least when it comes to enhanced oil recovery, some projects might actually emit carbon than burning conventional fossil fuels. But Elrod says it's a start.
"This is a bridge, this isn’t a global solution that’s going to be the sort of panacea here… This is actually something that’s going to get us to a future where we have low-carbon intensity power generation and efficient use of energy."
Figuring out how to get across that bridge is a goal -- and an experiment -- that the world is counting on.