The Extraordinary ReMaking of Ordinary Things, Part 2: Delta CleanTech aims for CO2 capture in service of oil & gas

April 5, 2021 |

Today, in part 2 of our series The Extraordinary remaking of Ordinary Things, let’s begin with a bit of news overlooked by the major news outlets last week, that Alberta-based Delta CleanTech acquired the CO2 capture and solvent reclaiming division and operating assets of HTC Extraction Systems and has focused its mission on CO2 capture and management, primarily serving fossil energy companies. The company raised $7.5M to expand its commercial capacity.

Another driver. The Globe and Mail reported on March 7, 2021 that the Alberta government intends to seek $30 billion in federal funding via spending or tax incentives over the next decade for large scale industrial carbon capture projects.

As DCT president Jeff Allison observed, “There has been a recent surge in new CO2 capture projects, and these new projects are being driven by increased carbon taxes, ESG requirements, and increased CO2 mitigation funding.

So, let’s take this as our departure point. If you’ve been following the saga of CO2 capture, you’ll know that there are two major strands of innovation and one of them is direct air capture of CO2 from the atmosphere, generally funded through advanced R&D funds operated by governments and committed private investors; then, there’s CO2 capture from oil & gas operations, funded by oilcos eager to continue business operation and meet their statutory obligations on emissions. The arrival of government R&D funding on such a massive scale is a game-changer.

What’s at stake? Well, not much except the future of oil & gas, the Hydrogen Economy, the Climate, the continuation of boom times in the Western Canadian economy, and a Revolution in everyday materials. The last of which we’ll spend some time on later in this review.

First of all, let’s do some basic science and math, and look at how we produce CO2 when we make hydrogen from natural gas (primarily, methane). The stream reformation method goes like this (CH4 + H2O —> CO + 3 H2), and CO becomes CO2 this way (2CO + O2 —> 2CO2).

What happens if we capture all that CO2 and sequester it permanently in materials? Bottom line, making hydrogen from methane would be more carbon-friendly than using electrolysis to split water (with standard sources of power). Now, that’s interesting to oil & gas — and to fans of fossil sourcing everywhere.

Can we do that? 

Turns out, we might. DCT is connected to the $20 million NRG Cosia XPrize competition for CO2 capture, the company is supplying the CO2 to five semi-finalists based now in Alberta demonstrating that their technologies work. More on those here.

Let’s shift focus briefly to one of the 10 XPrize semi-finalists — one that has been demonstrating its technology in Wyoming and has now commenced a second demonstration in Alabama. That’s CarbonBuilt.

CarbonBuilt’s Reversa platform, which was developed over the course of seven years at UCLA’s Institute for Carbon Management, includes innovations to both the concrete mixture design and the curing process. The Reversa formulation includes calcium hydroxide, a commodity chemical used in a wide range of applications, and enables the increased and more flexible use of waste materials like fly ash.

In Reversa’s curing process, CO2 contained within dilute flue gas streams (with no requirement for capture or purification) is permanently sequestered into the concrete. Together, these innovations enable concrete manufacturers to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of their products in a manner that increases profitability.

“The incredible size of the concrete market and its ability to permanently store carbon make it perhaps the best opportunity the world has to reduce CO2 emissions,” said CEO Rahul Shendure. “Our ‘no compromise’ concrete meets the sustainability needs of builders and customers while offering a compelling value proposition for concrete producers and companies seeking to reduce their carbon footprint. Together, this adds up to the potential for a gigaton-scale reduction in emissions.” We covered CarbonBuilt in more detail here.

Bottom line? While we are skeptical about the long-term prospects of CO2 injection into oil wells, since ultimately the economy is supposed to be turning away from petroleum exploration, injection into everyday materials such as concrete offers a market that is large and stable. We might think of better sources of CO2 than oil & gas operations — for example, cement production itself, or ethanol plants — but no one is more motivated or better capitalized than oil & gas operations. And, not just for hydrogen production. After all, when we combust natural gas for power we also produce CO2, and a lot of it.

So, the stakes are high.

Will the newly-focused DCT become the leading player in the emerging carbon capture industry? The team has participated in many of the larger CO2 capture projects world-wide over the last 15 years including projects in Norway, Scotland, Italy, United States, and Canada — so, there’s reason to believe.

Yet the CO2 capture business is not really about who is going to lead, and more about how big is it going to become. 

At VERGE 19, Tom Chi noted: “”Since 1750, humans have emitted 2234 GT of CO2. 582 GT (26 percent) has been absorbed by the oceans, 648 GT (29 percent) has been absorbed by the land. The rest, 1004 GT or 45 percent remains in the air. So, if we put 1000 GT, or a trillion tons of extra CO2 in the air, we should take that out, the sooner, the better.”

ARPA-E’s David Babson noted that trillion ton number, multiplied it by a very cautious $100 per ton for CO2 removal, and came up with a $100T industry — or, $2T per year in today’s dollars by 2100 as we remove 20 billion tons of CO2 per year, which includes the capturing of all the perennial fossil emissions remaining by that time as well as a certain amount of sky-hoovering.

20 billion tons of CO2 represents 5 billion tons of carbon molecules— now, we use about 10 billion tons of concrete every year — how much CO2 we can inject there (BTW, cement does not contain any carbon, it’s mostly calcium, silicon and oxygen), that remains to be seen. But its one big potential market, much bigger than the 380 million tons of plastic we produce annually.

Bottom line, we need big applications. Limestone is one, it’s about 15 percent carbon and sixty percent oxygen, overall you can make limestone with roughly 44 percent of the content representing CO2. Blue Planet is working on a synthetic limestone technology. Otters are working on methanol or ethanol from CO2, and those are big markets, too. We need a lot of big apps, not a lot of small apps and not one or two big apps. We’ll be watching the extraordinary remaking or everyday things to see how we capture CO2 and then convert it to useful materials. DCT has taken a nice step in that direction. More on them, here.

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