MUMBAI, Feb 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As students at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur in eastern India, Aniruddha Sharma and Prateek Bumb had one obsession: finding a cheaper, more efficient way to capture carbon emissions to combat climate change.
They began working on the problem in 2009, while still at university. The eureka moment came after numerous trials and errors that required re-starting the process 16 times.
With no help from the Indian government, Sharma and Bumb tapped private investors. They also won prize money of 3.6 million pounds ($4.5 million) in a UK competition, giving them access to scientists and academics in the field.
“Carbon capture technology may have the single biggest impact on emissions reduction,” said Sharma, co-founder of Carbon Clean Solutions (CCS), now based in London.
“But for it to be widely used, it’s very important that the technology be cost-effective,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
India is the world’s fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. As a signatory to the Paris Agreement on climate change, it has committed to ensuring at least 40 percent of its electricity is generated from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.
However, India - and other nations - also are looking for ways to reduce climate-changing emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Capturing carbon dioxide produced by power plants is one way to cut those emissions. But while most previous technologies have focused on capturing the emissions and pumping them below ground, CCS’s technique is a capture-and-utilise one.
It uses a patented molecule that captures carbon dioxide from power plant emissions and uses it to make other useful products like baking soda.
The technology can be retrofitted onto existing plants, and is cheaper and more efficient than existing methods, Sharma said.
Worldwide, technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions and store them underground has struggled to find traction.
The UK scrapped plans to spend up to 1 billion pounds to commercialise the technology just days before the Paris climate meeting in 2015.
Nevertheless, countries and companies are still keen.
BHP Billiton last year gave $7.4 million to China’s Peking University to develop carbon capture technology.
India offers no subsidies for carbon capture and instead focuses on increasing its renewables capacity to cut emissions.
“To encourage innovations like this, we would need more state backing, just as we have seen in the renewables space,” said Aruna Kumarankandath at the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi.
“These technologies are hard to develop and scale.”
There is clearly a market: while Sharma and Bumb’s Carbon Clean Solutions has found takers in Europe, its biggest vote of confidence has come from India.
Tuticorin Alkali Chemicals & Fertilizers has used the technology at its plant in southern Tamil Nadu state since October.
At the plant, carbon dioxide is captured from a coal-fired boiler and converted into soda ash, which is used in glass manufacturing, sweeteners and detergents.
The process is projected to save 60,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year, a world first, according to Sharma.
The cost of capture is about $30 per ton - about half the cost of other technologies in the market, he said.
“The next wave of innovation will reduce the cost further, perhaps even by half, to the point where it’s almost equivalent to or less than the emissions tax,” he said.
“Then it would make more sense to capture the carbon than to emit it,” he said.
Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.
Sign up for a free trial of our full service at https://www.breakingviews.com/trial and follow us on Twitter @Breakingviews and at www.breakingviews.com. All opinions expressed are those of the authors.