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Skyonic to capture carbon from coal in baking soda

As an alternative to pumping CO2 underground, a Texas project will use flue gases from burning coal as ingredients to make baking soda and other industrial chemicals.

Rather than pump smokestack gases underground to keep them out of the air, Skyonic wants to turn them into something else and sell them.

The Austin, Texas-based company this week started a pilot project of converting flue gases from a cement factory into industrial chemicals, including baking soda. This SkyMine project, located at in San Antonio, Texas, will test the company's "carbon mineralization" process, with the goal of starting construction of a commercial-scale facility by the third quarter of this year, according to Skyonic founder and CEO Joe Jones.

From coal to baking soda: SkyMine project in Texas will use CO2 from coal as an ingredient. Skyonic

Carbon capture and storage often refers to separating carbon dioxide gases from coal power plant pollution and then pumping the CO2 into underground geological formations. Aided by federal research funding, the technology is being tested in the U.S., which gets about half of its electricity generation from burning coal.

Skyonic, which received $3 million in research funding from the Department of Energy, is treating carbon dioxide as an ingredient rather than a waste product.

At the San Antonio project, flue gases from burning coal will be mixed with water and heat and passed through a membrane to separate hydrogen and chlorine gas, explained Jones. That step also isolates sodium hydroxide, or caustic soda, which is combined with carbon dioxide gas. That mixture is then filtered to produce sodium bicarbonate, he said.

In all, the SkyMine project will combine three processes, something that hasn't been done before, Jones said. It's designed to use the heat and extract water from the flue gases, while scrubbing out air pollutants, including mercury and gases that cause acid rain.

This pilot project will take 75,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide and, by mixing with caustic soda, will produce 143,000 metric tons of baking soda, Jones said.

If it works, the company will be able to capture 96 percent of the carbon dioxide and most of the air pollutants from the cement plant while producing industrial chemicals that it can sell. Part of the challenge for the technology is running the process in a way that's commercially viable and doesn't use a great deal of water and energy.

"We've been running a demo plant, we know it works. We just need to get a [pilot plant] going and make money," Jones said.