turning greenhouse gas into natural gas
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by Allie Nicodemo
August 03, 2015
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NextPotential turns greenhouse gas into natural gas

Sometimes a technology is born that has the potential to change everything.

That’s the hope and promise of NextPotential, a company that recycles industrial carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and converts them to natural gas. The technology is based on a novel chemical catalyst developed and patented by Jean Andino, a professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy at Arizona State University. To bring the concept to market, a group of entrepreneurs have licensed the technology and launched NextPotential.

Duncan Hoffman, along with ASU students Hart Larew and John Blanchette, won a competition through ASU’s Furnace Technology Transfer Accelerator, which provided them with seed funding and allowed them to license Andino’s technology for use in their company.

The team later joined a cohort of ASU’s Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative. The accelerator program provided the startup with crucial funding and access to advisors who helped in development of a business strategy and market launch plans. Next Potential is now part of the Edson Alumni program that will help future Edson program cohorts with peer mentoring.

NextPotential’s process is a breakthrough in the field of carbon recycling. The use of easily sourced, inexpensive materials sets the startup apart from competitors.

Other companies that recycle CO2 do so by heating it to extremely high temperatures. That, of course, takes energy, which generates even more CO2 when it is produced. But NextPotential is different. Its system derives energy directly from sunlight.

“We made this photocatalytic material that is initiated by sunlight,” Andino says. “It helps carbon dioxide interact with water vapor or hydrogen in a way that’s very favorable.” In this case, the reaction produces methane, or natural gas.

Here’s an example of how the whole process works: A cement factory uses fuel to heat a kiln where ingredients are mixed to form the cement. The factory releases carbon dioxide as a byproduct, which typically goes straight into the atmosphere. But instead, NextPotential captures that carbon by using a giant blower to divert the emissions into a system of pipes.

Using sunlight for energy, the CO2 gets converted into methane, or natural gas. The cement factory can then use that “solar fuel” to power their kilns, which saves them the cost of purchasing new fuel.

The technology could be applied to a wide range of industries, including power plants, wastewater treatment, landfill gas recovery and more.

“It’s a closed-loop cycle, so the methane that was made from their emissions is now their fuel source,” Hoffman says.

The system would allow factories to dramatically reduce their CO2 emissions as well as their fuel requirements. It’s a win-win situation, both financially for industry and for the environment. The technology is especially timely given the Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations for coal power plants. The Clean Power Plan calls for a reduction in carbon pollution from the power sector. The plan will reduce overall emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

“The neat thing about this technology is that it can help these companies make their process more efficient,” Andino says. “Instead of just simply releasing the carbon dioxide into the air, they can use the carbon dioxide and water vapor that comes from the combustion process, recycle it and make more fuel.”

Right now, the team is prototyping and securing investments so they can bring the end product to market.

“We’ve been working closely with Charlie Lewis, vice president of venture development at Arizona Technology Enterprises (AzTE), who has been helping us navigate investment prospects and introducing us to venture capitalists and strategic investors,” says Hoffman. AzTE is ASU’s exclusive intellectual property management and technology transfer unit.

Hoffman says NextPotential will first develop a device that industry customers can buy and run themselves. As the company grows larger, it will become its own utility.

“The end-use customer plants trade us their emissions and we take it off their books, and then we sell them back natural gas in a long-term offtake agreement,” Hoffman explains.

NextPotential will be tapping into a market of around $100 billion, the team estimates. But the company is also poised to have an immensely positive impact on the environment by addressing one of the greatest sources of carbon pollution.

“We’re talking about the ‘holy grail’ of energy here,” Hoffman says.

Learn more about ASU research and expertise on carbon and climate.