Post date: Thursday, 22nd March 2012

New carbon capture project announced; but turning waste gas to jet fuel is already here

 
Richard Branson with Lanzatech chief executive Jennifer Holmgren

Richard Branson, with LanzaTech's Jennifer Holmgren, holding jet fuel made from waste carbon gases at the signing of their deal.

National Grid and partners have announced a potential new CCS project for Scotland. But a different form of CCS is soon to be used by Virgin Atlantic to create aviation fuel.

Petrofac, the oil services company, American developer Summit Power, together with the National Grid, have announced they are joining the £1bn government competition to build a carbon capture and storage (CCS) project in Grangemouth, Scotland.

The project is dependent on securing financial backing from the EU as part of the UK's next funding round for CCS, in which case it could be up and running in 2018.

From carbon capture to aviation fuel

But a far more interesting form of carbon capture and storage technology promises to be up and running much earlier, and capture carbon more cheaply and effectively from industrial processes, and turn the result into aviation fuel, amongst other things.

"The revolutionary fuel production process recycles waste gases that would otherwise be burnt into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide," Virgin Atlantic said.

Virgin Atlantic has signed a deal with its developer, New Zealand company Lanzatech, which was this week named as one of 10 New Energy Pioneers at the fifth annual Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit in New York.

Several of these winning companies are in the area of smart grid or energy efficiency, while others are in electric vehicles and generating energy from treating wastewater. They were all selected because of their “innovative, proven technologies, robust business models and the ability to demonstrate traction and global scale".

Lanzatech won for its success in using bacteria that absorb and process carbon dioxide and other waste, polluting gases from fossil fuel combustion, and turning the result into biofuel and useful chemicals.

The company has won a string of awards; just last month it was named one of the 50 most innovative companies in the world by the editors of Technology Review Magazine.

Lanzatech chief executive Jennifer Holmgren said the start-up was honoured to get the award, which recognises its technology as a game changer. "By beneficially recycling waste gases, Lanzatech is able to address the three pillars of sustainability by reducing overall carbon emissions and increasing the supply of fuels and chemicals without competing for food or land resources," Dr. Holmgren said.

Its first commercial project is installing its technology on a steel mill in South Auckland, which will be operational as soon as next year.

But the company also has development projects in Shanghai and India (a deal with Mumbai-based renewable energy investment company Concord Enviro Systems), which are expected to be completed and generating income streams in the same timeframe by selling the fuel product to Virgin Atlantic.

"This partnership to produce a next generation, low-carbon aviation fuel is a major step towards radically reducing our carbon footprint, and we are excited about the savings that this technology could help us achieve," Richard Branson says.

"We were the first commercial airline to test a biofuel flight and we continue to lead the airline industry as the pioneer of sustainable aviation."

LanzaTech is 51% owned by Khosla Ventures of Silicon Valley in California, and was founded by Vinod Khosla, the India-born co-founder of Sun Microsystems.

The fermentation technology has been proven using a 100,000 gallon-a-year demonstration plant. At the heart of it is a patented microbe that uses gas feeds as its sole source of carbon and energy for fuel and chemical production.

The bugs can feed off a broad range of industrial offgases, whether they contain hydrogen or not, such as from steel mills, municipal waste, organic industrial waste, syngas and methane, and converts them into ethanol.

Because it is much more straightforward to install, it could be implemented relatively quickly on a wide scale throughout all these industries. If so, it would slash global carbon emissions and provide a sustainable source of fuel in a much shorter timescale than the complex one being envisaged for energy generation plants.

LanzaTech is also working with French company Global Bioenergies to produce the biofuel-precursor chemical isobutylene from waste carbon monoxide, which currently has to be expensively scrubbed from many industrial processes as it is toxic.

If successful, this will be a revolutionary process, because nowhere in nature is isobutylene made using bacteria. The chemical is also used to make kerosene: jet fuel.

Dr Holmgren said “This work is a natural extension of the Global Biotechnologies and LanzaTech technology platforms.

"LanzaTech’s strategy is to diversify its product portfolio beyond ethanol to key chemical intermediates and drop in aviation fuels through developing key technology partnerships.

"Global Biotechnologies’ technology could contribute to this strategy as isobutene can be directly converted to polymers and jet fuel relevant C-12 molecules.”

The process is not unique. Many companies throughout the world are also competing, whether small fry innovators with large partners: BP and Verenium, OPX Bio and Dow; or two large companies together: BP and Dupont, and Rentech and ClearFuels.

The Petrofac project

The CCS initiative in Scotland is called the Caledonia Clean Energy Project. Under it, a new coal-fired power station would be constructed in the Firth of Forth, fitted with carbon capture technology that would carry 90% of the carbon emissions from combusting the coal via a pipeline into the North Sea.

"The project site has been selected to take advantage of synergies with other facilities for industrial gas supply and to support CO2 capture," said Summit Power in a statement.

"The location provides the benefit of being close to the UK North Sea for both CO2 storage and, later, enhanced oil recovery opportunities, and enables the re-use of existing pipelines."

If it gets the go-ahead, securing the carbon dioxide gas under the seabed would be the responsibility of Petrofac's subsidiary company CO2DeepStore.

Petrofac has an office in Aberdeen, and CO2Deepstore is 50% partner in the Storage Joint Venture at Goldeneye, in the Outer Moray Firth, for CO2 storage from SSE’s Peterhead gas fired power station.

As with the Don Valley Power Project, the gas would be used to pump out oil deposits from the bedrock in the St Fergus oilfield, in a process known as enhanced oil recovery.

Dr Sam Gardner, from WWF Scotland, said that this aspect of the proposal cancelled out its carbon-capturing purpose; therefore the project would only attract their support if this element were to be removed.

Aedán Smith, RSPB Scotland's head of planning, also called enhanced oil recovery “unsustainable" in this context.

The project builds on the experience of a similar demonstration one being developed in Texas by Summit Power with the help of a $450m grant from the US Department of Energy, which will pump oil from local fields.

Story: David Thorpe, News Editor

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