Carbon capture and recycle: a new lease on life for coal, cars

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) has been touted as a way to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants. In North America, coal plants emit around 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. Storing 2 billion tonnes of CO2 every year will be a bit tricky, to put it mildly. But what if there were a way to use that carbon? What if coal plant emissions were a resource instead of a waste?

Every tonne of carbon dioxide contains around 273 kilograms of carbon. Combined with hydrogen and catalyzed into hydrocarbon fuel—using technol0gies and processes that emerged in the early 20th century and were improved during and after the Second World War—those 273 kg of carbon could become 423 litres of gasoline. At 60 cents per litre, the retail value of the gasoline manufactured from a tonne of captured CO2 would be $$253.95.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, it costs roughly CAN$200 to capture a tonne of carbon. That puts the material cost of the carbon component of a litre of synthetic gasoline at just over 47 cents. That’s about the wholesale cost of a litre of 60 cent pump gasoline. With hydrogen at roughly 35 cents per litre of gasoline (assuming electrolysis at 67 kWh per kg of hydrogen and electricity at 5 cents per kWh), and production costs on top of that, it would be hard to compete with 60-cent-per-litre gasoline.

However, the costs of carbon capture vary wildly, depending on what you read. The press release for a carbon capture project in Denmark says the cost could be as low as half the DOE estimate (see press release). This would put the carbon cost at around 21 cents per litre. Unfortunately, combined with hydrogen and production costs, this produces fuel that is still not competitive with 60 cent pump gasoline.

But a recent MIT study says you could cut carbon capture costs by 30 percent if you went for partial, instead of full, capture (see article).

Regardless. If retail gasoline were to re-approach last summer’s levels, and if carbon capture and hydrogen production costs could be reduced, synthetic hydrocarbon fuels could be the wave of the future.

From the environmental point of view, carbon capture and recycle (CCR, rather than CCS) would have the effect of nearly removing either power plant or vehicle emissions from national greenhouse gas inventories. That would be dramatic.