Chemical plant would turn emissions into useful products

By David Hendricks

San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO — A construction materials company and a chemical company have teamed up to build a $125 million chemical plant that proposes to demonstrate to the world how greenhouse carbon dioxide emissions can be captured and converted to marketable products.

The basic concept is for the Capitol SkyMine plant in San Antonio, being developed by Austin’s Skyonic Corp., to capture much of the carbon dioxide gases emitted from the coal-burning Capitol Aggregates cement plant. Zachary Construction of San Antonio owns the cement plant.

The carbon dioxide will be converted into products such as baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and hydrochloric acid, which can be used for hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas fields.

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Capitol SkyMine will be the first plant of its kind. If successful, Skyonic plans to license its technology to companies around the world, Skyonic communications director Stacy MacDiarmid said. That raises the possibility that carbon dioxide emissions elsewhere could be captured to make profitable non-gas products instead of increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, trapping the sun’s heat.

Skyonic plans to break ground on its chemical plant at the cement plant site later this month. The plant is set to begin partial operation by the second half of 2014.

The project has received two U.S. Department of Energy grants totaling $28 million. Other investors are BP Ventures, Houston’s ConocoPhillips, Cenovus Energy, Bluecap Partners, Energy Technology Ventures, Berg & Berg Enterprises, Northwater Capital Management and PVS Chemicals.

“We have pure venture capital funds and strategic investors as well,” MacDiarmid said.

The company already has fine-tuned the carbon capture and production process at the San Antonio cement plant, ahead of building the plant. The technology also has been tested at different kinds of plants in Texas.

“Zachry turned out to be a great commercial partner for us,” MacDiarmid said. The San Antonio location is near Skyonic’s headquarters and near enough to Houston’s chemical companies that will buy the byproducts from the Capitol SkyMine plant, she added.

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Zachry is also an investor in the Capitol SkyMine plant, as is the company that landed the $117 million construction contract. Toyo-Thai-USA Corp., which will build the plant, is owned by Toyo-Thai Corporation Public Co., based in Thailand.

“Building Capitol SkyMine plant, the first commercial-scale carbon capture and utilization plant in the U.S., will have global implications, and our experience in the energy market makes us an ideal partner for this project,” Hironobu Iriya, Toyo-Thai Corporation Public Co. president and CEO, said in a prepared statement.

Skyonic was founded in 2005 by inventor and CEO Joe Jones, who has a background in the low-energy semiconductor industry.

One day, Jones was watching a science television show about future manned missions to Mars when he saw a discussion of the problem of how to handle carbon dioxide breathed out by astronauts during a long space voyage.

The idea occurred to him to mineralize the carbon dioxide gas into solid carbon compounds.

“He studied his chemical textbooks. When he knew he had a good idea, he started to find backers” and obtain patents, MacDiarmid said.

The Capitol SkyMine plant will be capable of directly capturing 83,000 tons of carbon dioxide yearly and converting 157,000 tons of bicarbonate annually, MacDiarmid said.

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Skyonic believes the plant can begin turning a profit in three years.

San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute played a role in helping Skyonic develop its technology.

“The commercial plant design is the culmination of work we helped Skyonic demonstrate beginning in 2005,” said Eloy Flores III, assistant manager of research and development for the institute’s Fuels and Energy Development Section, Chemical Engineering Department, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Division. “Joe Jones arrived . . . with a concept, and we provided the venue with engineers and scientists to test and move through the stages of chemical process development.”

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