Monday, May 3, 2010

Calera and the laws of thermodynamics

I blogged a few months back that Vinod was one VC that is in need of some thermodynamic education. Old Vinod has teamed with Bechtel and Peabody Coal to capture carbon dioxide from coal fired power plants with some new “low energy” method to convert the CO2 to carbonates and bicarbonates. Yeah if this is low energy and can be done inexpensively they have disproved the second law of thermodynamics and have rewritten the third law! The third law states that as temperature approaches absolute zero entropy approaches a constant minimum. I propose a fourth law of thermodynamics that states “there is Gibbs Free Energy but there is not Vinod Free Energy, any claim that states the Vinod free energy has been maximized will result in investors earning a constant minimum that approaches zero.” Marcus one of the avid readers of the Green Machine blog asked me to opine on the thermodynamics of reacting carbon dioxide to form carbonates and bicarbonates.

Also a few months back, I blogged about Bechtel and the 1,230 megawatt ultra supercritical coal fired power generation station it was building in Wisconsin. Well Bechtel has licked its wounds in the coal fired power plant business. Their losses on the Oak Creek facility in Wisconsin exceeded $445 million, now that their arbitration claim of $517 million with Wisconsin Energy was settled for only $72 million. Bechtel is building an even larger and an even worse polluting coal fired power plant for Peabody Coal in Southern Illinois. This two unit generation station with a total capacity of 1,600 megawatts that Bechtel proudly claims is the largest green-field coal fired power project in the USA in the past 20 years. Instead of building natural gas fired combined cycle power generation stations that emit approximately half the carbon dioxide of these behemoth coal fired plants, Bechtel and Peabody are now supporting old Vinod the VC in his new company called Calera.

Their hope in Calera is that carbon dioxide will rapidly and without much energy input react with “natural water” to produce calcium carbonate. Yeah we have stalactites, stalagmites, and now Calera’s might. My other VC buddy at Draper Fischer lost a bunch in a now bankrupt startup GreenFuel that was trying to produce bio-fuel from the carbon emissions of power plants using algae. DFJ found out the hard way that the laws or thermodynamics are inviolable and the resulting chemical formation employing carbon dioxide as a raw material is slow and expensive. Mother Nature knows the laws of thermodynamics well and that is precisely the reason why the photosynthesis of carbon dioxide is a painfully slow reaction. Vinod, Bechtel, and Peabody think they are collectively smarter than Mother Nature. Combine Bechtel and Peabody and you get BP and you know what I think of that. Add the V for Vinod and we get BVP that stands for Bad Value Proposition. Talking about BP and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, with costs estimated as high at $13 billion, BP also means Bring Pesos.


  1. Lindsay,
    finally, someone is talking about the 3 laws. Is there a way you can condense this a bit for broader consumption? It's always seemed intuitive to me that the energy required to sequester carbon must be a good fraction if not in excess of that we derive from it combustion.

    The closest thing to this might be harvesting forests, making charcoal, and burying it.

    -- Tse-Sung

  2. see my comments against
    for a refutation of the Calera process.

  3. The minimum thermodynamic energy required to separate and liquefy pure carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is less than 8% of the heat released when burning the carbon.

    Imagine the permeation of CO2 through an ideal selective membrane with a CO2 partial pressure of 0.00038 bar (roughly equivalent to 380 ppm concentration in air at atmospheric pressure) on one side and pure CO2 at 0.00038 bar on the other side.

    Isothermal compression to the critical pressure (73.8 bar), at which point the CO2 is liquid and at a pressure sufficient to drive it deep underground, then requires 29.7 kj/mole which is 7.54% of the heat of combustion of carbon