Ian Power + Brent Constantz: Don’t Take The Planet For Granite

This week on Sea Change Radio, we dig into the archives and take a look at two mineral-based innovations. First, we speak to Ian Power, an assistant professor at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, who is working on a breakthrough in manufacturing a CO2-absorbing mineral called magnesite in a fraction of the time that it forms in nature. We talk about his team’s research, learn about the methods they used, and talk about this unusual mineral’s potential to fight climate change. Then, we hear from Brent Constantz, the founder of Blue Planet Systems, a company that has developed innovative carbon-capturing methods for concrete production. We discuss Blue Planet’s latest projects, look at the industry as a whole, and examine some encouraging concrete recycling solutions.

00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:18 Ian Power (IP)– It costs a lot of money to install sewers rights and it costs a lot of money to fix problems and so it’s difficult to get away from that reality. But of course, no one would look back and think that installing sewers in London was a bad idea.

00:00:34 Narrator – This week on Sea Change Radio, we dig into the archives and take a look at two mineral-based innovations. First, we speak to Ian Power, an assistant professor at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, who is working on a breakthrough in manufacturing a CO2-absorbing mineral called magnesite in a fraction of the time that it forms in nature. We talk about his team’s research, learn about the methods they used, and talk about this unusual mineral’s potential to fight climate change. Then, we hear from Brent Constantz, the founder of Blue Planet Systems, a company that has developed innovative carbon-capturing methods for concrete production. We discuss Blue Planet’s latest projects, look at the industry as a whole, and examine some encouraging concrete recycling solutions.

01:26 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Ian Power. Ian is an assistant professor of geosciences at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, where he’s also the research chair in Environmental geoscience. Ian, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:42 Ian Power (IP) – Thank you for having me.

01:43 AW – So you’re at a conference in Boston right now? Presenting some pretty fascinating discoveries that you and your colleagues have made recently. Maybe you can briefly summarize these findings before we dive deeper into them.

01:57 IP – Sure, colleagues and I we’ve been working on the formation of this mineral magnesite’s and we’ve been looking at its formation under Earth surface conditions, both really looking at it in nature and then also in the laboratory. And what’s great about this mineral is that when it forms, it does sequester carbon dioxide, which of course is a greenhouse. In in our field studies, we tried to understand the processes and the mechanisms in which it forms, sort of in these Playa environments in northern British Columbia, Canada, and we quantified how quickly it forms, and we showed that it it does form quite slowly, but in the laboratory we we were able to accelerate its formation.

02:39 AW – So was the intention from the outset of this research to find something that could help reduce CO2 and fight climate change?

02:47 IP – Well, there are many researchers looking at different ways in which you might form different carbonate minerals, like magnesite, so we’re not the first ones to sort of investigate this broad area of research that’s going on globally. For example, in the press release Peter Kelleman, he’s looked at formation of magnesite under high temperature conditions. So our research we were looking at these natural environments as a sort of natural analogue for carbon sequestration. Because again, we can learn a lot from nature. Much of the carbon dioxide or carbon on earth is stored within these carbonate minerals. So if you think about very large, like limestone deposits, there’s a lot of carbon stored within that material. So you know, Mother Earth knows how to sequester carbon dioxide over geological times. But the real problem is that we’re of course emitting so much CO2 into the atmosphere. The earth can’t really keep up with all these emissions.

03:49 AW – So magnesite is a mineral that usually takes hundreds or thousands of years to form and you and your colleagues are able to create it in a few days with this process and how common is this mineral magnesite? Is it something we see all around us?

04:05 IP – No, it is fairly unique. There are a number of different environments around the world in China. In Turkey as a couple of examples, but its formation is fairly rare under earth surface conditions. You also do find its formations or deeper in the crust in places like Oman for example, but it is pretty unique. You wouldn’t just run into it walking doing a hike.

04:32 AW – And how would a geologist recognize it? How is it distinct from a rock like limestone that you just mentioned?

04:39 IP – Uhm, macroscopically, if you’re just visually looking at it, it’s a little different. You know it’s white, it’s a rock, or it can form as sediments. So in the environment that I’m looking at, it’s more you may have seen the photograph. It’s like a white settlement, or it could be a white rock. But yeah, pretty unimpressive to the naked eye.

05:01 AW – So take us into the technology that you and your team developed using these polystyrene balls in order to greatly accelerate the time it takes for magnesite to be clear. Created how does it work and what could it mean in a larger sense in terms of climate change?

05:19 IP – OK yeah, so this was research initiated by Paul Kenward and myself. Previous experiments have shown that these sorts of reactive surfaces can accelerate carbonate. Uhm, with magnesite as I mentioned it does form very slowly at sort of ambient conditions. But what these reactive surfaces do is that they sort of disrupt the hydration layer around magnesium ions, which I know seems a bit technical, but it kind of attacks the rate limitation. That that normally occurs in nature and it can speed things up quite a lot. So in the natural setting, we estimated that its formation would take hundreds or thousands of years to form, but in the laboratory we were doing. It’s formation in 10s of days, so it’s quite a dramatic acceleration.

06:15 AW – And how do these polystyrene balls play a role in the process, Ian?

06:19 IP – It sort of works as a catalyst. I guess you could think about it in that way, so it’s not necessarily being lost during the process, but it’s acting as a catalyst so you can form magnesite using higher temperature reactions, so people are again investigating that. But higher temperatures often means more energy input, which also means more expense, and so there’s value in kind of looking at alternative ways in which you could form this mineral. And that’s why we want to try and use these reactive surfaces as a catalyst to form magnesite at more earth surface conditions.

06:54 AW – When we’re talking about this carbon dioxide storing mineral and its unique characteristics, maybe you can compare how efficient, it is in storing CO2 to methods that are being developed for CCS. That’s carbon capture and sequestration.

07:10 IP – Right, so in some of the carbon capture and storage technologies where maybe perhaps people are investigating the idea of injecting supercritical CO2, which is more of a fluid into the subsurface. The drawback of that sort of technology is that there’s the potential for leakage. The great thing about forming carbonate minerals is that it is a solid mineral, right? So you can hold that in your hand. There’s no real concern about leakage, so it doesn’t necessarily store more carbon dioxide. Obviously, that would depend on the scale that you sort of implement. These sorts of technologies, but it’s very secure, which is good for long term storage if you’re trying to store carbon dioxide for thousands of years, and it’s also quite environmentally safe.

07:58 AW – And how would magnesite’s CO2 storage capability compared to the photosynthetic properties of trees that convert CO2 to oxygen in terms of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

08:14 IP – It may or may not be more efficient than, let’s say a tree storing CO2 by. I guess the difficulty with organic matter is of course the tree will shed its leaves and potentially die and then release that CO2 through degradation or as a mineral.

08:32 IP – Once the CO2 is locked in there, it’s more stable for longer periods of time. It’s not going to turn over like the organic bio mass of a tree would.

08:41 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and  I’m speaking to Ian Power. He’s a professor of geological sciences at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. So Ian, I know this isn’t part of your usual academic presentation, but if you can try and look a little into the future and dream a bit about the long-term potential of magnesite. What do you foresee it becoming someday possible?

09:08 IP – Well firstly, I’ll say that you know our study was a very small scale laboratory experiment, so obviously there’s a lot of challenges in trying to upscale these results to the sort of industrial scale. So lots of challenges there, but depending on a lot of different factors. But if the price of carbon were high enough and we had technologies that were efficient enough. Then we could have a world where we do actively manage and sequester carbon dioxide. In my opinion, you know there’s a million and one ways in which we generate greenhouse gas emissions, and so we really need a million and one ways to manage greenhouse gas emissions so in a future world, we could have reactors that are connected to power plants and sequestering that point source of CO2. Other people are investigating how we might. Capture CO2 from the atmosphere atmosphere so there’s a wide range of potential technologies that might work in different scenarios.

10:12 AW – And how would this sequestration work exactly? Would the magnesite be formed in a lab and then put underground to a cave of some sort?

10:23 IP – Well, in my research, it was more focused on sort of formation of magnesite at ambient conditions, so again these could be lower temperature reactor systems where you’re forming the mineral. But as I mentioned, people are looking at other different avenues for forming magnesite at depth. So there’s a lot of different approaches you could take.

10:44 AW – And what was like the light bulb moment when you realized that this mineral was taking shape much faster than you may have speculated?

10:53 IP – Well, I was the one that was doing the sort of microscopy. After we had sort of conducted the experiments and so we use a scanning electron microscope which allows us to image objects that are on the micron or even sub micron scale. So very very tiny. And then I was able to identify these magnesite crystals and I know from my work in the natural environment that many sites a fantastic mineral for storing CO2 and so that was kind of the light bulb moment when we identified.

11:29 AW – And I want to understand how integral to the accelerated growth of the mineral are these polystyrene balls? Do you think magnesite can grow more rapidly in in other scenarios? That is, are you trying to improve the process using different substrates?

11:47 IP – We haven’t gone there yet, but I think there are. Or there is potential for using different substrates that again have the same sort of mechanism but could be implemented a bit differently and those processes could be more efficient for example, and maybe easier to upscale. So these polystyrene spheres they they do mimic some of the surface properties of certain bacteria. And again, this has been an area of research for myself and others looking at how bacteria can help form different carbonate minerals. So in some ways these polystyrene spheres were acting again to mimic the cell surface characteristic. So again, that could be a different Ave where you could potentially have a bacterium that is capable of forming magnesite under certain conditions. That’s not something we’ve explored, but it is a possibility.

12:39 AW – So give us an idea of how much magnesite would be needed to make a significant impact to offset the emissions of, let’s say, a 250 megawatt coal-fired power. And is this something that can potentially be used above ground?

12:56 IP – Well, it’s not an area of research that I’m involved in, but there are other people looking at what you might use different byproducts for, whether it’s magnesite or other carbonate minerals that you might form during carbon sequestration. There’s even people investigating ways in which you might transform CO2 into some sort of fuel. So it is an active area of research trying to come up with ways in which you might create beneficial byproducts. While sequestering CO2 so magnesite may have uses sort of in the industrial world, but it’s not an area of research that I’m focusing on.

13:31 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio I’m speaking to Ian Power. He’s a professor of geological sciences at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. So Ian, we’re always taught to follow the money when looking at an investment or some emerging technology. What should listeners look for if they’re going to be following this technology in terms of this becoming something bigger than a promising mineral being developed in a lab setting, do you foresee big government agencies or private companies pouring money into this utilities? What would be kind of a bellwether event for it to really ramp up?

14:14 IP – Yeah, that’s a big question and I don’t necessarily have a great answer for that, you know, are the greenhouse gas emissions that we’re emitting at the global scale? You know it’s almost mind boggling, and it’s important to understand that if you really want to tackle this problem, you know we have to do things at quite a large scale and it is going to cost money. I recently saw a presentation by Peter Kellemen. He was talking about London, England before they had sewers and you know the spread of disease and it costs a lot of money to install sewers and it costs a lot of money to fix problems and so it’s difficult to get away from that reality. But of course, no one would look back and think that installing sewers in London was a bad idea.

15:01 AW – You mean dumping our chamber pots from second story windows onto the streets below wasn’t a great plumbing solution?

15:07 IP – No, not a solution, and that’s what we’re doing to the atmosphere. Right now we’re just dumping pollution into the atmosphere and looking the other way and to tackle climate change, to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, it’s going to cost money. You know you can’t get away from that reality, but it also is important to keep in mind the costs of not doing anything.

15:26 AW – Ian Power is an assistant professor of geological sciences at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Ian, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

15:36 IP – Thank you so much.

15:40 (Music Break)

16:59 AW  – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Brent Constantz. He’s the founder of Blue Planet. Brent, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

17:06 Brent Constantz (BC) – Thanks Alex, it’s good to be back here.

17:08 AW – So I wanted to have you back because it’s been a while and the work that you and your colleagues are doing at Blue Planet Systems is really exciting I think. And it’s one of the overlooked areas in terms of carbon footprint and concrete. Why don’t you first explain the basic mission of your organization?

17:26 BC – Well, if you look at what we need to do as humankind. We need to curtail about 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year continuously in a sustainable way. And there really aren’t a lot of options for us. There’s been a tremendous amount of work treating carbon dioxide as a pollutant to Rep, remove from industrial plants, and even from the atmosphere. But there are not a lot of things you can do with 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide. In fact, we believe maybe one of the only things you can do with 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year is synthesize it into limestone, which is a natural process. You know, the Great Barrier Reef is made out of limestone that’s coming from carbon dioxide through a process in the ocean, and you know it represents hundreds of billions of tons of trapped carbon dioxide in the limestone and in limestones also the most used aggregate in concrete and concrete is a mixture of cement and aggregate, and it’s roughly you know 80% aggregate, meaning sand and gravel and the rest is cement and rock is the most transported commodity around the world other than water, and there’s about 55 billion tons of rock mined every year for use in mainly concrete, but also asphalt and road base. And rock is a commodity which is used in every country in the world. And purchased by every country in the world today, so it’s something that can be done without a subsidy, because we’re already purchasing rock, not just rich countries, but also poor countries everywhere where rock is used, which is ubiquitous virtually everywhere. And it’s there’s also enough of it that if we take the carbon dioxide and we convert it into the limestone, which is the most common type of aggregate rock used in concrete. And use the funding that governments are already using in private industry to purchase the rock for concrete. We can create a sustainable mechanism to curtail 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year and this is how we get to the goals that we really, really need. If we’re serious about doing something about climate change.

19:51 AW – And what is Blue Planet’s proposal to do something in this in this area?

19:56 BC – Well, we’re developing a plant right now in the San Francisco Bay area in Pittsburgh, California at a 500 MW natural gas plant that puts out about 2,000,000 tons of CO2 a year, and at that plant we’re making a side-stream, we call it a slipstream, of the flue gas that normally would be going out into the atmosphere and bring it into a system where we capture the CO2 and convert it from CO2 to CO3, which is carbonate that’s brought together with a calcium source to form calcium carbonate. And that calcium carbonate is the fundamental constituent of limestone, and we have technology which allows us to mineralise it into a hard stone as opposed to say, a powder or something like that that has the strength and is useful as an aggregate in concrete – the way where we get the calcium at this particular Blue Planet location is it’s coming from old concrete. And there’s as much concrete demolished every year or returned concrete as there is new concrete laid down every year. And traditionally, in most places that concrete will go to a landfill or be broken up for Rd base or something. We bring it in to the site we’ve arranged a barging operation to bring it to our site via barge, so we’re not taking these heavy materials on the roads with trucks or anything like that, and in our process we extract the calcium out of the concrete and what’s left? When we do that, is the original rock and aggregate that was in the concrete, which can also be upcycled and reused as a recycled material in structural concrete, which is really exciting because right now in the Bay Area in California we bring a lot of our rock down from British Columbia because there’s a shortage of sand and gravel. So in addition to extracting the calcium from the the old concrete that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill probably, and we released. And liberate the sand and gravel that was originally in it and are able to reuse that again, and instead of having to go out and mine it and have an open pit mine and transport rock into the Bay Area long distance we can recycle the byproduct of our calcium source, which is the old concrete. It’s really upcycling it. But the main product we’re making is the carbon sequestered limestone, which is made from the CO2 that came from the flue gas from the power plant that would have gone into the atmosphere combined with the calcium we extracted. To make another type of aggregate, which is a limestone aggregate so that that’s that’s an example of one of the projects that we’re developing locally here to develop the Blue Planet technology and make this solution available.

23:08 AW – And you’re also doing some work in Moss Landing South of San Francisco with California’s largest power plant.

23:15 BC – Correct, I guess it was the largest carbon sequestration plant in the world about 10 years ago at the Moss Landing Power plant. And now with the second generation of Blue planet we we may go back down there as well sometime in the future and reestablish a carbon operation there. The plan I built there 10 years ago made a calcium carbonate sequestered cement. CO2 sequestered in calcium carbonate. What we’re doing at Blue Planet is making the rock component of concrete, which we call aggregate.

00:23:55 AW – But the Moss landing one used seawater, right? Maybe it could explain some of the differences between the two technologies.

24:03 BC – Well, the the most fundamental difference is the the colera plant that I built down at Moss Landing starting in 2007 through 2010 made cement it made a replacement for Portland Cement, which is a semantic component of concrete and like I was saying concrete’s about 10% Portland cement and the rest is sand and gravel and it blue planet. We’re focused just on the sand and gravel because it’s a much larger component, there’s only about 3 or 4 billion tons of Portland cement manufactured every year, but like I was saying, there’s about 55 billion tons of rock mined in open pit mines every year. So if we really want to make a significant impact in carbon sequestration and carbon removal, it’s going to be with the rock component of concrete. But technologically, the differences are also with Blue Planet. We’re able to access the calcium and the alkalinity and natural rocks in materials like concrete, which we call geomass with the Clara system, we developed an electrochemical methodology to create alkalinity from water by splitting sodium chloride into sodium hydroxide and HCL, and like you said, we were located on a sea water cold natural gas plant and we had access to seawater there and we extracted the calcium from the seawater in that particular site. Whereas up at Blue Planet we were using demolished concrete as our calcium source and our alkalinity source.

25:47 AW – Now when you’re talking about what you’re doing, you’re working with other companies, and you’re providing your know how, and knowledge of processes. Or is there some physical technology that you’re providing?

26:03 BC – Well, from a business model point of view, there’s sort of two extremes. One extreme is what we’re doing up here at the power plant up in Pittsburgh, where we formed a separate company. It’s called San Francisco Bay aggregates. San Francisco, Bay aggregates is an independent operating company. It brings in the flue gas from the power plant. It can utilize other utilities like steam and electricity, for example cooling water from the power plant it brings in demolished concrete being barred from you know San Francisco and other places where there’s a lot of building and demolition going on. And it’s an independent entity which then sells the aggregate that’s made to concrete producers. And there are three or four major concrete producers around the Bay Area. We there’s one we’ve been working with in particular that has about 1/3 of the market. Share of the concrete in the Bay Area. They’ve done parts of the Bay Bridge. They’re a fairly significant concrete producer, and so there are offtaker of the rock. The other extreme is this straight license, so in that case we’re licensing the patented technology to the emitter of CO2 and we’re advising there engineering, procurement and construction group. On what to build, how to operate it, how to find the right markets for the rock, how to find the right incoming geomass. You know raw materials that they need and and that’s a different kind of relationship where we’re receiving a royalty and providing a service to them.

27:57 AW – Brent Constantz of Blue Planet Systems, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 Brent Constantz – Nice talking to you, Alex.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by The Beatles and David Essex. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com. Stream or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.