Bridging carbon product’s valley of death

Gaurav Sant, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, holding samples of the concrete produced using the technology his team devised. (Photo credit: CarbonBuilt Inc.)

Captured carbon dioxide could one day fuel an $800 billion industry

It sounds like science fiction, but for a select few, capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from energy production emissions to create viable and economical carbon products is a hard-won reality that could breathe new life into the Powder River Basin and other coal communities.

In the five years following the 2015 commencement of the International Carbon X Prize competition, and its conclusion in 2020, where ten teams from five countries strove to identify new economical uses for captured carbon in the hopes of claiming one of two $7.5 million grand prizes, researchers and industry leaders have discovered how to utilize carbon in ways previously unimaginable.

Partnerships and private endeavors have identified how to produce products like carbon-infused building materials and carbon fiber, graphene-type nanomaterials for improved electronic components, and energy-efficient computer memory chips for the next generation of artificial intelligence.

Both winners of the Carbon X Prize competition, CarbonBuilt Inc. and CarbonCure Technologies, developed revolutionary processes taking carbon captured during energy production from natural gas and coal-fired power plants and permanently sealing it within new types of cement and concrete, effectively reducing carbon emissions by unprecedented margins.

Robert Niven, CEO and Founder of CarbonCure Technologies, one of the winners of the International Carbon X Prize competition

These new types of cement and concrete are 15 to 35 percent stronger than what is currently used in mass production, according to Dr. Brian Anderson, director of the National Energy Technology Lab (NETL) at Morgantown, West Virginia, who added that early collaborative research efforts have shown these materials can be comprised of up to 70 percent carbon.

It’s an extremely effective approach for reducing the nation’s carbon footprint, according to Dr. Gaurav Sant, professor at the UCLA Institute of Carbon Management and chief technology officer at CarbonBuilt Inc.

CarbonBuilt concrete blocks coming off of the production line. Each CarbonBuilt concrete block stores about three-quarters of a pound of carbon dioxide. (Photo credit: CarbonBuilt Inc.)

These products and others have sparked discussions of the emergence of an entirely new market opportunity: carbon utilization. This prospective $800 billion industry carries substantial economic and environmental potential, according to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), chair of the Senate Committee of Energy and Natural Resources, who spoke during an advanced carbon product hearing on April 23.

The emergence of the research establishing the commercial viability and usefulness of carbon products comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s recent announcement of an aggressive goal for the U.S. to reduce its carbon emissions by 50 percent within the next decade.

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Meeting this goal is feasible, according to Jason Begger, managing director of the Wyoming Integrated Test Center, assuming full-scale commercialization of advanced carbon products and an accelerated permitting process are implemented to enable geologic sequestration on federal lands.

The “Valley of Death”

There’s only one problem: nearly every startup carbon technology effort is confined within the walls of small-scale testing labs with little to no incentive for assuming the risk of overcoming the next obstacle.

In the startup world, that obstacle is infamously referred to as the “valley of death,” a term that describes a period of time where a company is forced to contend with negative cash flow after initially entering the market until their products begin reaping revenue, Martin Zwilling, CEO of the entrepreneurial guidance company Startup Professionals, wrote eight years ago in Forbes.

At the time of publication, Zwilling estimated that 90 percent of new ventures that fail to attract sufficient customer bases never leave the valley of death and subsequently fail.

To prevent the same fate befalling emerging carbon technology research companies, strategic government action through monetary and regulatory incentives, like tax credits for established corporations and direct payments for early-stage innovation companies is necessary to establish a carbon product market, according to Sant.

Additionally, Sant continued, emerging carbon product companies will need assistance if they are to keep pace with projected demand with a trained workforce.

That assistance would, ideally, come in the form of funding assistance for capital construction of facilities like full-scale commercial plants, he noted.

“Without having that early-stage support that is needed to really have full commercial deployments, we are not going to be able to scale up fast enough,” Sant said during the committee hearing. “This sort of operational, experiential familiarity really comes from the government coming in and offering early-stage support because it builds experience in not only production but also the products themselves.”

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Getting the product out of research and scaled up to commercial levels could prove beneficial in another way as well, said Anderson, by driving down the costs of existing CO2 feedstock that could expand commercial interest by making carbon products more economical.

“To capture a metric ton of CO2, it costs between $42 and $48,” Anderson said. “We want to get to $30 to provide that low-cost feedstock for utilization that provides another mechanism for market value.”

Carbon from produced energy

Carbon capture, as demonstrated by CarbonBuilt and Carbon Cure Technologies, generally refers to direct air capture of CO2 produced through energy production via petroleum and coal. Carbon quantities between the two are essentially identical, according to Randall Atkins, CEO of Ramaco Carbon in Sheridan, Wyoming.

But of the two, coal is the most economical in terms of a viable carbon feedstock, Atkins said, who added that a ton of coal in Wyoming costs around $12, whereas a ton of petroleum can cost as much as $400.

With research efforts currently underway to identify ways to produce carbon products without the need for direct air capture, coal could become a feedstock that would be too valuable to burn, according to Atkins, whose company has coined the phrase “carbon ore” to that goal.

“In our concept, coal stops being an emitter of greenhouse gas,” Atkins said. “Instead, it becomes an engine of economic progress and job growth for communities that are too often left behind.”

Demand for thermal coal is in decline across the U.S. for the foreseeable future, he continued, adding that coal-to-product manufacturing carries the potential to offset the economic and job losses in coal communities.

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Many coal and powerplant communities have been impacted and will become even more impacted as the nation moves forward with the energy transition, added Anderson.

“As we create opportunities, we’re adding value to the resource that is in these coal communities,” Anderson said.

But for all the positives presented during the committee hearing, one thing failed to escape the attention of committee members: the experimental nature of the product at hand.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) posed the difficult question concerning whether taxpayers would support their dollars going to fund large-scale, private commercial facilities and the technology that could, potentially, end in failure.

“I’m not sure that taxpayer would be good with that,” she said, adding that private investors may understand the risk of funding new technology and can accept that they may never see a return on investment, but taxpayers may not be as understanding.

A market for carbon product innovation

Experimentation, however, goes hand in hand when developing any new technology, according to Sant, who added that there are significant questions regarding the viability of the product that cannot be answered until it is moved to a commercial scale.

“That’s the nature of the beast,” he said, but developing a market for carbon product innovation could be a viable solution. When there is new technology emerging and guaranteed market demand, there is a very low likelihood of failure.

Carbon innovators understand the need to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, which is where a facility like the Wyoming Integrated Test Center, the largest post-combustion research facility in the U.S., north of Gillette could come into play, according to Begger.

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The National Carbon Capture Center and NETL are both great research facilities, Begger said, but they are limited in size and federal tax dollars are being spent to send American developers to new facilities in Norway because of those size restrictions.

“The ITC can host larger projects at better value to taxpayers with some additional infrastructure,” Begger said. “We have the perfect blank canvas, now we need to fill it. There is no better place than Wyoming to conduct this type of research.”

As time moves on, the cost of CCUS technology will likely decrease while the technology itself only gets better, he continued.

“Technology is apolitical and the U.S. can make the greatest impact by investing in knowledge that can be utilized around the world,” Begger said. “Technology is the best way to ensure countries have access to power while meeting environmental goals.”