Image Credits : CarbonFree’s SkyCycle system at the company’s R&D center in San Antonio, Texas. (CarbonFree) | Image : Visual for illustration purpose
4 minutes read

US Steel plant in Indiana to host a $150M carbon capture experiment

Martin Keighley, CEO of CarbonFree, thinks his carbon capture company offers a ​unique proposition” compared to its competitors: It can actually make money, today.

On Wednesday, the San Antonio, Texas-based company announced its first large-scale effort to prove that proposition — a $150 million project at U.S. Steel’s Gary Works blast furnace in Gary, Indiana. When completed in 2026, it will capture 50,000 metric tons per year of the carbon dioxide the plant currently dumps into the atmosphere, ​mineralize” it, and ultimately turn it into the ubiquitous industrial product calcium carbonate.

The technology is far from a complete solution to the steelmaking facility’s climate impact — let alone its other toxic industrial emissions. The project will capture less than 1 percent of the roughly 10 million metric tons per year of carbon dioxide that Gary Works emits.

But ​importantly, this is the demonstration of a real commercial solution” for capturing carbon emissions, Keighley said — one that turns what are usually regarded as waste streams into a valuable product that will ideally fund much more CO2 removal.

CarbonFree’s proprietary SkyCycle technology will essentially treat the steelmaking facility as a provider of raw materials, Keighly said. The company will combine the carbon it captures from blast furnace gas with the calcium it extracts from slag, a byproduct of the steelmaking process. The result is calcium carbonate, an ingredient used in everything from chemicals and construction materials to foods and cosmetics.

Tens of billions of dollars of calcium carbonate is bought and sold across the world every year. The higher-value ​precipitated calcium carbonate,” or PCC, that CarbonFree is planning to produce is used in foods and pharmaceuticals, and can fetch a price of $500 to $1,000 per metric ton, Keighley said.

At those prices, sales of the roughly 100,000 metric tons per year of calcium carbonate that CarbonFree will produce at Gary Works — 50,000 metric tons of CO2 plus an equal amount of calcium — could earn back the $150 million investment that CarbonFree and its as-yet undisclosed financial backers are making within a few years.

Capturing carbon, making chemicals

CarbonFree’s business model has a distinct set of economics from typical carbon capture and removal projects, which rely on government subsidies to scrub and store carbon from emissions sources like power plants or factories, or to suck it from the atmosphere itself.

In fact, many of the earliest carbon capture efforts have been costly failures, as with the hundreds of millions of dollars the U.S. government sank into now-shuttered projects at coal-fired power plants. The costs of carbon capture at power plants, refineries, cement and chemical production sites and other heavy emitters remain high, and their future viability very much in question.

Meanwhile, the latest climate science indicates the need for removing carbon from the ambient atmosphere at the scale of tens to hundreds of gigatons — billions of metric tons — per year over the coming decades to keep global warming below catastrophic levels. But the direct air capture (DAC) projects being built in Europe and the U.S., which are distinct from carbon capture projects at industrial facilities, remain costly and unproven at scale. They’re estimated to cost anywhere from $400 to $1,000 per metric ton of carbon, and are only removing thousands of metric tons per year.

Making sure that captured carbon never re-enters the atmosphere is another major challenge. Carbon capture and removal projects often focus on injecting CO2 into geological formations deep underground, with a host of complications and uncertainties over the long-term safety and durability.

Despite its issues, supporters of carbon capture say the technology has advanced since its early failures. And beyond the long-term need for removing carbon from the ambient air, some argue that carbon capture is the best near-term pathway to cutting emissions from dirty but essential industrial processes like steelmaking and cement production. That means finding ways to make the technology cost-effective is vital for the industries seeking to make it part of their portfolio of climate solutions.

By contrast with costlier methods, carbon capture and utilization projects like CarbonFree’s approach are meant to put captured carbon dioxide to use in a way that can make projects financially viable. But most of the projects pursuing this path today are planning to inject carbon dioxide into oil and gas wells to increase their productivity — a pathway that’s incompatible with the dire need to halt the extraction and use of planet-warming fossil fuels.

Another increasingly popular approach is to store carbon in cement and concrete. But these are bulk commodities that command relatively low prices — roughly $130 per metric ton in the U.S. — that aren’t much higher than the costs of capturing carbon from cement plants in the first place.

On the other hand, embedding captured carbon in concrete does lock it from reentering the atmosphere for decades or centuries — an important consideration when assessing the value of carbon utilization strategies.

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