Get The Facts: Turning pollution into profit

4 abc WTAE
Shannon Perrine

May 12, 2023 — Watch the video on WTAE

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh's Action News 4 spoke with the CEO of a Texas company who has an idea to take some pollution out of steel mills and turn it into profit.

In its first-generation technology, CarbonFree sucks carbon dioxide out of a San Antonio cement plant, pushes it through a machine, and out comes baking soda. They literally sell their baking soda that started out as pollution on Amazon.

"And we take the flue gas from the kilns of a cement plant next door, we pipe it into our SkyMine plant, and using our SkyMine process, we make baking soda. We actually make a food-grade baking soda from dirty cement gas. Just amazing," CEO Martin Keighley said.

Enter CarbonFree's next-generation technology. It turns out they were making way more baking soda than the world needs.

Their SkyCycle system takes pollution out of steel mills that use blast furnaces, pushes it through a machine, and out comes a specialty chemical called precipitated calcium carbonate, or very pure limestone.

While you can't buy it on Amazon, there is a market for it. It's used in plastics, rubber, paints, adhesives, sealants and caulks. And what they don't sell, they can safely store above ground.

"Yes, it's basically limestone. It's very safe, and it will just be left out in a nice pile of rocks, basically," said University of Pittsburgh professor Katherine Hornbostel.

Hornbostel was asked if CarbonFree's science and business model would work.

"This company's already got a large, established demonstration in Texas. They've been doing this for decades. They seem to really know what they're doing, and they're using very established technologies that have components that are cheap and can be scaled up pretty well," Hornbostel said.

The White House invited the top brass from U.S. Steel to share how the company is trying to go green. CEO David Burrit revealed that U.S. Steel has a potential deal with CarbonFree to set up their pollution-capturing system at the Gary Works in Indiana.

Keighley says if the deal goes through, they can start removing some pollution from the Gary Works in 18 months.

"We're ready to act now," he said. "That's the other beauty is that we're not sort of five, 10 years out."

The U.S. Steel marriage with CarbonFree would be the next step in CarbonFree's mission. By 2050, the company wants to capture 10% of all carbon dioxide from all industries, not just cement and steelmaking.

"It's about an 8 billion tons of pollution globally that's industrial," Keighley said.

"From those two industries?" Pittsburgh's Action News 4 anchor Shannon Perrine asked.

"From all hard-to-abate industries," Keighley said.

"All hard-to-abate industries in the United States?" Perrine asked.

"In the world," Keighley said. "We have a global ambition."

U.S. Steel's Mon Valley Works uses the same steelmaking process as the Gary Works, using coal in blast furnaces.

"Is there a chance that what you're going to do at Gary Works, what you do in San Antonio, you could do in Pittsburgh?" Perrine asked.

"The technology is applicable across U.S. Steel's fleet as it is applicable across other steel producers as well," Keighley said.

He says CarbonFree's process does not just capture carbon dioxide from steel mills, but also particulate pollution that causes problems in Pittsburgh's air quality.

"So that could actually improve air quality in the surrounding area," Hornbostel said.

The Pitt expert says CarbonFree has a realistic goal of eliminating 10% of global industrial carbon dioxide, and she says they're already ahead of the curve.

"I would just encourage U.S. Steel to keep up the good work. They are investing in the right kinds of companies, and this is the sort of technology that more people need to be investing in now," Hornbostel said.

CarbonFree's SkyCycle system will also produce hydrochloric acid as a co-product of this process. They say they can sell that too.