Embracing the Potential of Carbon Capture and Utilization as an Essential Strategy for Decarbonizing the Power Sector

May 16, 2022 |

By Anna Douglas, Co-Founder and CEO, SkyNano Technologies

Special to The Digest

In early April 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the third part of its sixth climate assessment report, outlining actions that can be taken to mitigate climate change. One of the report’s top recommendations is to replace fossil fuels with renewables. It’s pretty clear that decarbonizing the power sector will go a long way to accomplishing this goal as well as help countries around the world meet ambitious carbon emission reduction targets. The big question is, how do we do this? Answering this question is not as straightforward as you might think. A lot of different approaches are being discussed, some make more sense and receive higher priority than others. At the end of the day, what’s most important is finding a solution that is equitable for the consumer, one that allows them to maintain the same quality of life and does so in a decarbonized way. Carbon capture and utilization is one such solution.

Transforming CO2 from a Climate Liability into a Useful Commodity

There are a variety of technologies being developed today to capture CO2 out of point source emissions. Some of these technologies convert that CO2 into something useful while others capture it for the purposes of storing it underground. SkyNano has developed a solution that is a capture, conversion, and storage technology all wrapped up in one process. Our technology captures and separates CO2 from dilute streams (e.g., direct air, concentrated flue gas) and uses electricity to convert it into valuable carbon-based materials, including carbon nanotubes. These high value materials can be used to improve the performance of everyday consumer products such as batteries, tires, inks, paints, and coatings. The potential impact of our technology is three-fold: it involves direct carbon removal, it offsets emissions by replacing emissions-heavy traditional carbon additives and materials, and it provides permanent CO2 storage since our solid carbon products don’t reemit CO2 during their lifecycle.

Meeting the Challenge of Scaling Carbon Capture and Utilization

Carbon capture and utilization technologies hold much promise in helping to decarbonize the power sector. However, several things need to happen to scale this strategy in a way that will have a meaningful impact.

First, we need to build out capacity for carbon-free or low-carbon electricity to power carbon-capture systems. Many carbon-capture technologies rely on electrochemical operations or electrical power to some degree. To do that in a carbon-negative fashion, you need carbon-free electricity. Sounds a little silly, but we may need to install a wind farm to power a carbon-capture installation at a natural gas power plant.

This brings me to my second point. We need to find ways to decarbonize our existing fossil-fuel assets. One way to do this is to use a combination of renewable, nuclear, energy storage, and decarbonization strategies to keep our fossil-fuel assets online for the duration of their useful life. This isn’t something a lot of people like to talk about, but the reality is we have many assets like natural gas power plants that have decades of useful life left in them. If we turned these assets off today, the price of electricity for the general consumer would skyrocket. That’s not all. Every aspect of life would be impacted – your grocery bill, the cost of everyday goods and services, everything. And our most marginalized communities stand to be the hardest hit. So, it’s important to think about how we can use these fossil-fuel assets’ outputs for other processes or devise low-cost ways to pull CO2 out of their emissions.

Finally, we need to develop a workforce to support this work. Carbon capture and utilization is a rapidly growing and evolving field and there are many places along its value chain that require skilled workers. At SkyNano, we employ interns every summer to help train people in this area, regardless if they choose to work for us or someone else in the future.

SkyNano’s Role in Advancing Carbon Capture and Utilization

Workforce development aside, SkyNano is doing its part to advance the scaling of carbon capture and utilization. We have been fortunate to receive $2.5 million from the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management for a three-year project to demonstrate the ability to capture and convert flue gas into value-added, carbon-based materials. Working with the Tennessee Valley Authority, we were able to successfully capture flue gas from one of their combined cycle power plants and use it to produce carbon nanotubes. This year, we plan to scale up by 200x to demonstrate this process at an intermediate scale, between a lab demonstration and a commercial plant. Our hope is that, as we scale this technology and get more people in the industry and community on board, this work will spur further development of scalable emission-removal technologies at power plants around the world.

The Future is Utilization, Not Sequestration

Like many people in the carbon removal space, our mission at SkyNano is to make sequestration obsolete. I firmly believe that the future is utilization, and the most sustainable path forward is to rethink how we can create materials and products from CO2. I have been surprised to see recent conversations switch from carbon capture and utilization towards sequestration, but I think it’s a temporary diversion. If you look around at all the materials and devices we interact with on a daily basis, there are so many things that can be made directly from CO2 or from CO2-derived materials. The possibilities are limitless.

There is no one right way to do carbon capture and utilization. Not every technology or solution is going to have the same impacts that SkyNano’s technology has. What matters most is that we use our resources to their best abilities, leverage strategies that will have the biggest impact on reducing carbon emissions, find ways to collaborate and not compete, and be cognizant about who ultimately pays. If we do this, I believe we will be well on our way to decarbonizing the power sector, and other hard-to-abate industries.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Category: Thought Leadership, Top Stories

Thank you for visting the Digest.