Google CEO & DOE Chief: Carbon Capture Tech Still in Beta, Needs "Debugging"

chu-schmidt-googCarbon capture technology is like a half-baked web tool, according to Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt: in need of some “debugging.” The chief of the search engine giant made the comments at Google’s headquarters this morning, where he interviewed Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Chu, who was visiting the Googleplex to talk about today’s ARPA-E funding announcements, responded by saying that while today’s carbon capture tech remains much too expensive for broad deployment, a relatively bug-free and affordable system — made up of dozens of different technologies — is not out of reach.

Chu has called for focus on (and investment in) carbon capture before, telling an audience of energy ministers at the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum earlier this month that an “aggressive timeline” for developing the technology is needed to address climate change. At that event, in London, he said the tech needs to be ready for “widespread, affordable deployment” within 8-10 years.

This morning Chu said that carbon capture and storage technology as it exists today would increase the cost of generating energy from coal by about 80 percent. “That is too high,” he said. “We have a road map of how to get down to 20-25 percent, which is tolerable.”

Among the possible routes to that goal, he said, are “some really new, high-risk ideas.” The ARPA-E program, designed to fund exactly those kinds of ideas through crucial phases of development, is supporting five carbon capture projects in the first round of 37 awards announced today.

In the long run, however, Chu expects many more technologies to find a niche in a carbon capture boom. Asked if he sees a role for “carbon recycling,” or if emissions captured from power plants will necessarily be buried underground, Chu gave a nod to algae-based solutions. “There are strains of algae being bred” that thrive with exposure to carbon dioxide. Ultimately, he said, “We don’t know what’s really going to take hold. But we do know that several dozen things need to happen.”

As analyst Mark Bunger, who heads up Lux Research’s Biosciences division, told us recently, algae fuel developers — a fertile area for entrepreneurial activity these days — could gain new interest from investors and potential buyers who see the international carbon capture buildout as proof that there’s a market for recycling the carbon emissions from power plants.

According to Chu, the benefits could go both ways, with “economic use” of carbon dioxide helping to promote deployment of carbon capture technology more quickly.

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