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The Road To a Solar-Powered Future is Paved With Natural Gas

Natural gas has been getting a lot of bad press recently because of the fracking (‘hydraulic fracturing’) debacle. The problem is that this method of gas drilling is riddled with controversy and real environmental risks. Gasland, an Oscar-nominated documentary about fracking, brought to the world’s attention how people living near fracking sites had their water poisoned.

But there are companies with cleaner ideas for natural gas. One of them is Carbon Sciences, a Santa Barbara, California outfit who is developing a technology to make gasoline and other types of fuel from natural gas and carbon dioxide. The process is a variation on the Fischer-Tropsch gas-to-liquids (GTL) process. What’s better, it could be cost competitive with crude oil at US$80.

The company says its mission is to “enable the nations of the world to reduce their dependence on petroleum by cost effectively using natural gas and CO2 to produce cleaner and greener liquid fuels for immediate use in the existing transportation infrastructure.” A noble mission, indeed.

Carbon Sciences recently announced it has entered a strategic partnership to bring its technology to market. “After a significant amount of testing, we have developed the key catalyst that the energy industry has been searching for. It is a catalyst for the dry reforming of methane (CH4) from natural gas and carbon dioxide (CO2) to produce synthetic gas (syngas). After productive discussions with potential strategic partners, our business model is now clear”, CEO Byron Elton told Energy Refuge.

Byron has a reason to celebrate as there are several potential clients to apply his company’s technology, which requires less energy and reduces CO2 emissions as well. Byron takes a pragmatic approach to energy. “What are the alternative forms of energy, especially transport energy? The days of getting cheap oil are over. We need clean and abundant fuel”, he said.

Carbon Sciences envisages possibilities to work with existing facilities around the world that currently produce syngas and which currently employ more costly methods of reforming methane (steam, auto-thermal or partial oxidation). It says these plants produce substantial quantities of troublesome “tail gas” containing methane and CO2 that must be separated and recycled or otherwise disposed of safely and ecologically. With the help of its technology, it notes, this tail gas can be economically transformed into additional valuable syngas.

“Out technology is very compelling in comparison with crude oil. It’s much cleaner to begin with. We actually use CO2 in the process of dry reforming. The biggest challenge has always been to find the right catalyst, which we have found. We’ve carried out tests in Canada and the U.S., which have proven the catalyst produces the same product. And it is cheaper”, added Byron.

It all sounds great but when is it going to be available? “In three to five years, which in this business is the blink of an eye”, he replied. “Maybe we’ll be producing fuel before five years but on a large scale that’s how long it would take.”

There’s plenty of gas in the southeast and northwest of the United States. In places like Malaysia there are great reserves, which have not been tapped so far because of their high concentration of CO2.

“The challenge with natural gas is how much CO2 is in it. For the people who are harvesting it, the lower the concentration, the better. 20% is the top. Our technology can handle a concentration of up to 50%”, he said. “And we don’t need to use fracking.”

OK, so natural gas is a transition fuel that can be extracted fairly cleanly and help us mitigate carbon emissions. But it will probably run out, too, at some point. “Probably the solution to all this is solar power”, said Byron. However, he points out, natural gas is probably the best bet to take us to that stage when solar can meet our energy needs.

Article by Antonio Pasolini, a Brazilian writer and video art curator based in London, UK. He holds a BA in journalism and an MA in film and television.