“In my view, innovation is essential to human progress.” – Bill Gates
I’m writing a news story about an Alberta team entered in the Carbon X Prize that got me thinking about the best way to tackle climate change and environmental issues. The competition stresses technical innovation. Isn’t technology how we’ve tackled all of humankind’s problems?
So, let me make just one point: Given Asia’s mad rush to develop energy-intensive industry and add several billion people to an energy-intensive Western-style middle class, and Western voters’ refusal to pay more or assume more risk for clean energy, life-style changes won’t come close to decarbonizing the global economy by 2100 (as the G20 nations have committed to).
I believe better technology is the only answer. And I’m not alone.
Mega-billionaire Bill Gates is fond of proclaiming that energy innovation is the driver of human advancement: “In my view, innovation is essential to human progress…Some people would say that it is the lens I use to look at every problem, and I have to admit that there is some truth to that. But I believe it is justified by history.”
Which brings me to CleanCarbon Energy and the $20 million Carbon X Prize, which is “incentivizing breakthroughs to convert CO2 emissions into useful products.” The Calgary-based company is one of 12 Canadian teams; there are also 19 from the United States, and a handful other others from China, Finland, Switzerland, the UK, and India.
This is no high school science fair. Craig Pichach, team lead of CleanCarbon Energy, is an experienced oil and gas engineer, and the other nine members of his team are also engineers or from other technical disciplines.
Pichach says CleanCarbon’s technology pumps carbon dioxide, bacteria, and brackish water into depleted oil and gas reservoirs. Geothermal energy within the Earth’s subsurface helps convert the CO2 into biomass.
Imagine, carbon dioxide fixation that doesn’t need sunlight, fresh water, or a substantial surface footprint.
Once the biomass has been generated, it’s pumped downhole again for the gasification process, after which it can be turned into plastics, fertilizers, gasoline, diesel and/or electricity using standard refining and generating techniques.
CleanCarbon would start with industrial-scale sources of carbon dioxide, such as coal-fired power plants. But Pichach believes the technology could be refined to draw CO2 from the atmosphere.
“We think we have a strategy for fixing massive amounts of CO2,” he said in an interview. “In the future, we think we can come up with a strategy to take CO2 from the atmosphere and then even the gasoline you make from our syn-gas would be carbon-balanced. That’s the long-term goal.”
CleanCarbon is hardly the first company to fix carbon. In fact, it’s not even the first Calgary outfit to get this far. As North American Energy News reported, Carbon Engineering launched a pilot plant in Squamish, BC last fall that moves large volumes of air through a piece of equipment where CO2 is absorbed by a liquid solution, and then transformed into pellets of calcium carbonate. The pellets are then heated to 800 or 900 degrees Celsius and break down, releasing pure carbon.
“There’s no real magic to it,” CEO Adrian Corless said. “The pieces of equipment already exist today in very large scale. And we’ve really adapted them from other industries.”
Carbon Engineering was founded by Harvard climate scientist David Keith and backed by the same Bill Gates I quoted earlier, and who readers will remember also launched the multi-billion dollar Breakthrough Energy Coalition at COP 21 in Paris late last year to invest in new energy technologies.
I argued in a previous column that it was time for innovators like Gates to take center-stage among the climate change adaptation strategies. If a $20 million prize can entice trailblazers like Pichach and his team to develop game changing technology, think of what Gates and his billions can accomplish.