Is there a good way to release carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Carbon Sciences, a Santa Barbara, California-based startup, seems to think so. The company announced this week that it has discovered an efficient raw catalyst that can turn natural gas and CO2 into gasoline. Carbon Sciences claims that the technology could be used to meet all of the United States' gasoline requirements using 23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 586 million tons of CO2—no crude oil required.
Here's how it works: Carbon Sciences gathers methane (from natural gas fields, landfills, and plant biomass) and CO2 (from coal-fired power plants and cement factories) and uses its secret formula to form low-level hydrocarbons and convert them into higher-level gasoline range hydrocarbons. This creates a gasoline-like substance that is free of heavy metals, carcinogenic compounds, and toxic oxides.
"The key features we have confirmed in our tests are high conversion efficiency and potential for catalyst longevity, which translates directly into commercial viability," said Dr. Naveed Aslam, Carbon Science's Chief Technology Officer, in a statement. "High conversion efficiency means lower capital cost to produce substantial quantities of fuel. Longevity means that our systems will not require frequent shutdown for maintenance and catalyst cleaning... unlike catalysts previously considered by others, our catalysts are designed using common metals that are plentiful and inexpensive."
The problem, of course, is that Carbon Science's technology doesn't prevent power plant CO2 emissions from hitting the atmosphere—it just recycles them into fuel along the way. Carbon Sciences argues that this process is still more sustainable than biofuels:
Most of the renewable alternatives to fossil fuel today, such as ethanol and biodiesel, are biofuels based on terrestrial crops such as corn and sugar cane. These sources of biofuel are not sustainable, as they compete with world food supplies and require large amounts of energy and time to grow, process, and ferment the crops into biofuels. Additionally, these biofuels...are either blended into gasoline in small amounts or require new or substantially modified vehicles and fuel delivery infrastructure. Most importantly, it is simply not possible to grow enough terrestrial crops to replace the 85 million barrels of petroleum the world consumes every day.
All fair points, but we're yet to be convinced that this is the most environmentally sound method of removing CO2 from factories and coal-fired plants. But if the process does work, it could have a dramatic impact on worldwide CO2 emissions—the transportation sector alone accounts for 74% of the total projected increase in fossil fuel demands from 2005 to 2030 (over 112 million barrels of crude oil used per day in 20 years). The largest source of CO2 emissions is coal-fired power plants, with annual emissions are projected to increase from 28 billion metric tons in 2005 to 34 billion metric tons in 2015 and at least 42 billion metric tons in 2030. If we could halve those emissions by recycling them and cut down on fossil fuel use, climate change could be slowed considerably.
This is still all a big "if," however. Carbon Sciences has yet to prove that its technology works outside of a lab setting, so it will likely be many years before we see any products from the company on the market.