According to his economic modeling, the rough cost of capture will be $35 per ton of CO2, a figure that is at least half the cost of other capture methods, such as amine scrubbing. The cost of retrofitting an old coal plant with capture equipment, for example, could in theory run to more than $100 per ton.
With the potential sale of magnesium carbonate, the cost could flip into a net financial gain, said Mercier.
Some carbon capture experts are skeptical, however. Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said "it's hard to believe this could be a major breakthrough."
"It could be a niche market," he said.
The idea of forming carbonates has been examined before, and rejected by some because of the magnitude of rock that would be needed to capture CO2 at commercial scale, he said. It also is tricky to perfect the chemical reactions and ensure they move fast enough, he said.
If the reactions are not efficient, the cost would rise significantly, he said. Many high-emitting sources also may not have appropriate rock available to do similar work, according to Herzog.
"This is officially bollocks (baloney). There are always mass transfer and cost issues that overwhelm even pilot scale projects and the costs becomes exceedingly high quickly," added Julio Friedmann, a CCS expert at U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Will future research be funded?
Mercier acknowledged the difficulties but said he had tweaked the combinations of metals in his chemical reactor to address prior problems. He has been working for more than two and a half years on finding the right types of rocks with the right combination of minerals to react efficiently with emissions from burned fossil fuels, he said.
In a report last year, the Global CCS Institute found that technologies reusing captured CO2 could play a role in controlling emissions in some markets, even if their global potential for controlling the greenhouse gas is small.
Regardless of whether Mercier's test works, it signals Canada's importance with research on capturing CO2, considering global financial cutbacks in the energy industry, another U.S.-based analyst said. The country is building what could be the world's first large-scale, integrated demonstration of carbon capture and sequestration technology on an existing coal plant at SaskPower's Boundary Dam Power Station in Saskatchewan.
That project took a step forward yesterday with SaskPower's announcement of the signing of an agreement with oil giant Cenovus, which agreed to purchase all of the captured CO2 from Boundary Dam for use in enhanced oil recovery operations near Weyburn. SaskPower said the project -- which would capture and store one million tons of metric CO2 annually from a coal plant -- was on track to become operational in April 2014.
Similarly, Canada has been aggressive in funding research like Mercier's and carbon capture research on oil sands operations via national funds and a $2 billion money pot from Alberta, said the analyst. Mercier's grant came as part of a $3.75 million distribution last month from Carbon Management Canada on various carbon control technologies.
The bulk of global carbon capture funding, though, came several years ago, when national climate change legislation was in play in both the United States and Canada. The $2 billion pot in Alberta is funding several commercial-scale projects that are close to construction, but no similar scale of money has come forth since then.