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Welsh “GreenBox”: Carbon Capture and Algae-to-Biodiesel Scheme

20 July 2007

A Reuters report on a device the Welsh inventors claim can trap mobile source CO2 emissions for subsequent removal and processing in a algae-to-biodiesel operation has generated a great amount of interest.

The three inventors say they devised the notion for the “Greenbox” while experimenting with carbon dioxide to boost algae growth for fish farming.

The Greenbox concept is to place a removable device inline with the vehicle exhaust system, where it captures the CO2. Although the prototype is “about the size of a bar stool”, the three say they can build one small enough to fit under a car with sufficient capacity to hold the emissions from a full tank of gasoline.

When the car refuels, the Greenbox would be replaced. The full Greenbox would then be sent to a centralized algae processing plant, where the CO2 would be removed and used as a feed for algae growth. The algae subsequently would be processed into biodiesel.

The three—organic chemist Derek Palmer and engineers Ian Houston and John Jones—say they have carried out more than 130 tests over two years at several testing centers, resulting in a capture rate between 85 and 95 percent.

Accompanying the Reuters story is a short demonstration video featuring a handkerchief test showing the difference in soot accumulation pre- and post-Greenbox—although nothing specific to carbon capture or release.

According to the Reuters story, the inventors say they have spent nearly £170,000  ($348,500) over two years developing the “three distinct technologies” involved and are hoping to secure more funding for health and safety testing.

With the backing of their local member of parliament they are now seeking extra risk capital either from government or industry: the only emissions they are not sure their box can handle are those from aviation.

...Not surprisingly, the trio won’t show anyone—not even their wives—what’s inside the box.

After every demonstration they hide its individual components in various locations across North Wales and the technology is divided into three parts, with each inventor being custodian of one section.

“Our three minds hold the three keys and we can only unlock it together,” said Houston.

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Wonderful, this should come to production soon.

Wonderful huh?

How does this biodiesel-Co2 capture-algae-biodiesel scenario compare to a renewable energy-electric grid-electric vehicle scenario. The carbon-footprint in this latter scenario is much smaller, electrical outlets for charging are everywhere, EV's don't need nearly as much maintenance as ICE's, and next-gen Li-Ion batteries like Altair's Nanosafe are safe, durable, and powerful and ready for today's EV market.

Not saying one solution fits all, but intuitively some solutions are better than others right up front, so why investigate CO2 tailpipe capture and algae processing at all?

This so called co2 capture does not solve the GW problem in any important manner. It only delays by a month or so the time it takes to release the co2 permanently into the atmosphere. We need to stop burning fossils entirely or else we risk ending up with a planet like Venus. The key technologies to a durable energy system are wind power, hydrogen by electrolysis, fuel cells, lithium batteries, and biomass for food, plastics and other materials. To speed up the transition process all development resources should be directed at renewable technology instead of being wasted on technology associated with fossils and nuclear energy. The fossil mining and drilling industry should also understand that their time is running out and that all of their infrastructure investments eventually will be lost because the planet will need to outlaw all burning of fossils in the future.

BJD: why not spend some time on this technology? Even if BEVs hit the road in mass, there would still be gas burners on the road for decades. Perhaps these boxes can be retrofit into older vehicles.

Henrik: If all cars had these boxes and we burned the resulting biofuel then we would be carbon neutral. Even if the loss is 50% (20%loss on capture, 20% in the bioreactor and another 10% for other overhead) , we've still cut our emissions in half.

To make this work, you will need quite a large amount of infrastructure - for every tank of gas you fill, you have to exchange a greenbox.
This is no mean feat.
It might work best for trucks and bus fleets where they presumably have larger tanks so you get more bang for your buck.
I wonder would it work for ships.
Would it scale to power stations ?
If we can capture enough carbon, cheaply enough, we should have the problem licked.
Then we just have to worry about peak oil.

As much as I like algae, BEVs just seem like a much better idea than this system. It's unnecessarily complex, and adds a step to the refueling process that makes it terribly inconvenient. What if there's no Greenbox available at the gas station when you pull in? Would they allow you to leave without one? I imagine they would be leased rather than owned, which adds cost.

You get the exact same CO2-recycling effect by using algae biofuel from recycled power plant flue gases.

The only real solution is the EV.
These vehicles cost less to manufacture than current fossil burning cars, they have much fewer moving parts. Also range is no longer an issue with current battery technology.
The biggest drawback is they are too efficient, the auto industry is built on replacement parts. These cars only require you to replace brushes every million miles or so. This means death, to the auto manufacturers, and they will never allow them.

The solution will be an evolution from ICE to Hybrid to PHEV to BEV.

Hybrids have been done. Battery technology is not ready for BEVs yet with any decent range (at reasonable cost).

This leaves in the HV -> PHEV phase right now.

The trick will be to produce a "smart" PHEV which can get the most from a smallish battery. This means using the battery for the most suitable part of the journey.
[ The stop start bits and the low speed bits ]. The system could have a memory and a GPS system so it could "learn" your typical driving week. After a week or two, it would be able to optimize the battery use matched to your daily commutes etc.
As batteries get better, the optimization would change, but this would give a smooth transition from hybrid to BEV, saving as much fuel as possible, substituting intelligence (silicon) for hydrocarbons.

I am suspicious of any technology where they won't say what's in the box. There could be several reasons why they won't disclose the contents:

1) They haven't patented it yet. (Why not?)
2) It's unpatentable, because it's obvious or already known art.
3) It doesn't actually work.

If it sounds like it's too good to be true, it probably is. The nonsense-video with a hanky doesn't bode well. It means they're after publicity, not investment. You don't attract capital with a video, but with a business case.

Peter:

If they were really that economical and easy to build, then we would have had them years ago. Please tell me how they cost less to manufacture when a PHEV-converted Prius adds ten thousand dollars for a 40 mile range?

While I agree that battery technology is improving, the real problems are still: Cost, range, recharge time, and cost. Tesla is starting with a $100k roadster for a reason. R&D costs big money, and if they're going to build up enough capital to make it cheaper in subsequent models, you have to start on the expensive, high margin end of the spectrum.

While in principle you could close the carbon loop using mobile carbon sequestration and biofuel grown in recycling greenhouses or photobioreactors, the odds of making it practical for common applications seem very poor. First problem is that the product CO2, even if stored as pure liquid, would have almost 4 times the weight of the fuel and around 30-50% more volume. Storing in an adsorbent or reacting material would surely at least double both the weight and the volume--so three or so times the volume of a gasoline tank. Illustrating it as a catalytic converter is deceptive, unless they envision you swapping it out as often as you would plug in a PHEV, and reverting to emissions on longer drives.

Then you have to pay the energy and economic costs of regeneration. High-density absorbers will probably have higher energy release costs. There will be contamination and absorber lifetime issues. Basically, you are combining problems from solid-state hydrogen storage systems and batteries. For cars, just focus on batteries.

If the inventors really do have an absorber that can even be considered for this, I would nominate it for stationary applications. Like scrubbing building air (supported by other purification) to reduce heating/cooling losses from air exchange.

While I can agree that switching to engines that do not produce GHGs is essential, I can't see the switch occurring in a short enough time frame to substantially reduce transportation caused warming. A plug-and-play contraption like this may indeed have a role in bridging the gap.

I'm wondering about the purported technology and implementation, though. All I've thought of for mechanism is either molecular sieve or carbonate sequestration. Either way, the ease of use and energy costs that these gentlemen are suggesting seems a little far-fetched. For example, capturing 90% of the CO2 from your tailpipe, at 20 lbs/gal, means that after burning 15 gallons you'll have increased the mass of your 'black box' by at least 270 lbs. Not so easy to simply pull off & replace. Plus, it seems that there would be a substantial reduction in tail pipe flow rate for there to be any capturing by the two mechanisms that I postulated.

Still, I think that it's worthwhile examining because CO2 can be a valuable commodity when used correctly. Plus, the idea has merit for converting potential fuel-cell water vapor into liquid vapor to reduce the GHG profile of this potential transportation option.

It would be interesting to see how it affects engine performance. Impeding exhaust flow can cause a loss of power and result in greater fuel consumption.

Another thing I don't like is that this thing is currently a "magic box". They won't let anybody look inside. Compare this to GreenFuel Tech, who has published technical papers in peer-reviewed journals. I'm skeptical of any claims that this can work without greater transparency.

Although I'm skeptical of the claims and the practicality, it's worth pointing out that this would greatly decrease ghg emissions of vehicles. If you put biodiesel made from algae in the tank and then capture ~90% of the CO2 and reuse it to grow more algae for more biodiesel, the CO2 is getting the equivalent of 10 uses (excluding the overhead of the infrastructure).

if more companys manufactured the excellent Zebra cell, we would all
be riding around in EV´s sometime soon , too much is resting on Lithium
cell technology, it will all to easy for the auto manufacturers to all hold
their collective hands in a few years and to tell us it does not work !
Zebra is available now , and it works , I have it on good authority that in
quantity (100,000) the price would be about $4000 for the 25kwh pack,
not bad for a cell that should last some 250,000 miles!

Capture and re-use of exhaust emissions? - I think this is a technology that could potentially "change the rules", especially if such devices can be retro-fitted to older (more polluting) vehicles. The old arguments about big gas-guzzling SUVs being bad for the environment, or about the comparative environmental footprints of keeping an old car or getting a newly manufactured one, would have to be re-thought.

I also think that this technology is going to truly call the bluff of motor manufacturers, oil producers and governments. Market forces alone would guarantee the success of this type of solution, so if it fails, we would know once and for all that the general public were being duped by those with more money and power than common sense!

Nice also to see that this solution was developed in Wales - the Welsh don't often get a mention, so well done to them!

Ken (from England!)
21/07/2007
1:30pm

andrichrose: 25kwh ... 4K ... drool, would be nice. Just out of curiosity, how much energy does it use to keep them warm?

neil ,
with the present tech its about 4 to 5% of the total capacity every 24 hours,
so with the 25 kwh about 1.3 kw per day , a small price to pay !

thx.

So where the hell is the algae getting its energy? The Aquatic Species Program was able to sequester around 30g/m^2/day of CO2. Let's say you make the car look ridiculous by making the entire roof a greenhouse/aquarium, 4 m^2. That means you can drive in the general vicinity of 1/23rd of a gallon of gasoline per day. Most people want a car that can run more than a mile and a half per day.

The idea is that the CO2 is captured in the box and then shipped to algae bioreactors for use.

If the idea had merit, the inventors would have gone public with details.  This looks more like a repeat of Steorn.

Can retrofit onto ALL cars, trucks, buses alone??
Major Income source for U Install & Service techs.
Wild & wow.

MegaBillions market alone for Auto Service & scrap CA smog emissions tests alone.,
Neat-O.

Anything you have to change nearly as often as a diaper
is a pita.

E100 PHEVs are the best answer at this stage.

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