Reducing the nation's output of greenhouse gases is no small task, but a recent investment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows the agency is banking on the potential of small solutions. This spring, the EPA awarded the three-employee Missoula start-up Intellimet a $70,000 grant to develop a cheaper method of carbon sequestration. The goal is to capture C02 for $20 a ton, and Intellimet hopes to do it by implementing technology first marketed toward the mining industry.
"The technology is what we call a platform technology," says Intellimet Chief Operating Officer John Hammen. "We really think we can be groundbreaking."
Since relocating to Missoula from Silicon Valley during the 2008 economic upheaval, Intellimet has been working with mining companies around the western United States to remove heavy metals from mining sites. The key to Intellimet's business model lies in a polymer spider web that works on the molecular level to trap contaminants while allowing organic matter to pass through. Hammen says that it is one of the most efficient and environmentally friendly methods around, and will be just as useful for sequestering carbon.
"Essentially the spider web has a chemical reaction with the carbon dioxide and it forms a chemical bond," he says. "In order to release [the carbon] you have to expose it to heat."
Hammen points out that the carbon sequestration market is in its infancy, and one of the largest uncertainties is what will become of the carbon once it has been contained. Proposals for large-scale storage in underground or undersea compartments have met opposition from environmental groups, who say there are no assurances the carbon will remain in place. Hammen says that yet another uncertainty is how the technology will be marketed in the absence of government regulations forcing companies to reduce emissions.
"That is the ongoing question, not just for Intellimet but for the [carbon sequestration industry]," Hammen says. "Of course the larger application is to remove carbon dioxide from coal plants...That's down the road."