Recent explorations into deep-sea environments have uncovered natural processes of carbon dioxide fixation without the need for sunlight. Western Research Institute (WRI)’s and CleanCarbon Energy’s chemolithoautotrophic (CAT™) technology combine these natural processes with geothermal energy available within the Earth’s subsurface to convert carbon dioxide to a high volume of biomass. The generated biomass is then converted into value added products through a downhole gasification process and proven refining processes to yield plastics, carbon fibers, fertilizers, gasoline, diesel and/or electricity. The complete process occurs without the need for fresh water or a substantial surface footprint.
CleanCarbon Energy Inc. (CleanCarbon), a Calgary-based company engaged in sustainable energy technology commercialization, has reached an Agreement in Principle with Western Research Institute (WRI) to jointly develop a family of carbon dioxide (CO2) to energy conversion processes. In the agreement, WRI will receive an equity stake in CleanCarbon in return for an exclusive international license to WRI’s Chemolithoautotrophic (CAT™) technology.
Leveraging the technologies of both organizations, the WRI and CleanCarbon integrated research program aims to commercialize a new pathway for inexpensive, carbon-balanced sources of energy and hydrocarbon products with the least-possible fresh water and surface footprint requirement.
Before the Industrial Era atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration was 280ppm +/- 10ppm for several thousand years. (1) It has risen considerably since then reaching 367ppm in 1999. The rate of increase over the past century is unprecedented at least during the past 20,000 years. The present atmospheric CO2 increase is caused by anthropogenic emissions of CO2. About 75% of these emissions are due to fossil fuel burning (6.3+/- 0.4 PgC/year. To balance the carbon cycle would require a drop in fossil fuel burning from 5.3 PgC/year to 1.9PgC/year or a decrease of 64%. Modelling also shows that even if all GHG emissions were zero some degree of warming would still take place that the argument is made that a large scale technology for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere is required (2).
At the same time the world derives many benefits from the burning of fossil fuels given they currently supply over 85 percent of the worlds energy needs (3). The need thus exists for an energy production strategy that balances the carbon cycle while fulfilling the global need for energy. Preferably such a strategy could continue to recycle CO2 in the future making it not only a strategy for balancing carbon but also a renewable energy strategy. CleanCarbon Energy has been formed with a mandate to not only provide strategies to balance the carbon cycle, provide renewable energy but to do so in a manner that supplies the existing world infrastructure by providing carbon balanced traditional petrochemical products.
Biofixation of CO2 to biomass is not an altogether alien concept. The best analog for climate change concerns is the phenomena of the Azolla Event. It is worth noting that geologically speaking (> 1 billion years) the Earth has had atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations above 2000ppm associated with a “greenhouse Earth” state where it was hot enough for turtles and palm trees to proposer at the poles. The Azolla Event occurred approximately 49 millions years ago when blooms of the fresh water fern Azolla in a land locked Arctic Ocean sank to a stagnant sea floor and were incorporated into the sediment. esearch concerning the geomagnetic reversal record allows the duration of the event to be estimated at 800,000 years (4). The event coincides precisely with a catastrophic decline in carbon dioxide levels, which fell from 3500 ppm in the early Eocene to 650 ppm during this event (5). The Azolla Event provides evidence in the relatively recent geological record where a “greenhouse Earth” had temperatures reduced with a corresponding drop in CO2 with evidence that biomass generation can be an effective option to sequester CO2.
Unfortunately the Azolla Event took place over 800,000 years due to the relative inefficiency and land requirement associated with photosynthetic organisms. Even with microalgae, among the fastest growing photosynthetic organisms is a cell yield problem. If high densities are achieved in the culture, photons will be blocked by the organism itself limiting effective distribution to less than 2m. Generally a limit of 1kg/m3 is associated with microalgae (6). Massive land footprints with huge water recycle thus become necessary unless artificial light is used which requires inefficient power inputs.
What if Carbon Dioxide can be fixed biologically without sunlight?
It’s happening right now. Kilometers beneath the ocean. CO₂, waste gases and oxygen are being converted into biomass by bacteria in hydrothermal vents and within giant tube worms (4). At the same time waste acids are is being converted back into sulfide by thermochemical and organic reactions deep in the Earth’s crust and ithin depleted oil and gas reservoirs. The CleanCarbon strategy is based upon these natural processes which use synergies between the carbon and sulfur cycles to balance reactions and energy requirements.