A Conversation With Byron Elton, President of Carbon Sciences

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ByronElton-Post.jpgWhenever he's able, Byron Elton leaves his Prius at home and bikes to the Santa Barbara headquarters of Carbon Sciences, an energy company that has developed technology for making liquid transportation fuels from natural gas. And once he's there, you won't find him eating a hamburger for lunch; Elton has been a vegan for more than 25 years now. You see, he believes that we're all responsible for our personal carbon footprint and that a lot of individual efforts can add up to a significant amount, which is why he does his part, at home and in the office.

Here, Elton discusses why putting a price on carbon is the cheapest, fairest way to cut down on pollution and build a clean energy economy; why carbon capture and sequestration is an unproven, energy-intensive process that probably won't work; and why we all need to pay more attention to how environmentally friendly we are -- or are not.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

We are working to commercialize technology that can make liquid transportation fuels from natural gas instead of crude oil. The era of cheap, easy oil is over and we need a solution that can help us produce affordable and efficient transportation fuels without relying on petroleum. I believe that our company has the technology to do just that.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

One simple, but oft undervalued idea would be individuals taking responsibility for their personal carbon footprint. In my case, I bike to work as much as possible, drive a Prius when I don't bike, and I have been a vegan for 25 years. People think that one person cannot make a difference, but it really is a ripple effect; any individual effort can add up to a create a significant global impact.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

Gas-to-liquids technologies get a fairly poor shake in the media today, especially in our hyper-politicized country, so people do not realize that it is actually possible to make drop-in transportation fuels without using crude oil. In fact, it possible to make these fuels more affordably and more "greenly" than we make them today. One day in the not too distant future we will run out of inexpensive crude, and it will be these gas-to-liquids technologies that will allow us to continue to afford filling up our gas tanks.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Putting a price on carbon. It is the cheapest, fairest way to cut pollution and build a clean energy economy. Just recently, Australia put a price on carbon, which will make firms more energy efficient and stimulate growth in natural gas and renewable energy technologies. It is a blanket price that will treat every firm and industry equally, while promoting sustainable policies that will be of great benefit to the environment in the long run.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Carbon capture and sequestration. It is a bad idea and won't work. It is an unproven, energy-intensive process and has the potential to make the problem worse. What we need is a process to recycle the CO2 into valuable products such as transportation fuels.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and methane make up more than 90 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from municipal landfills. For example, these gases can be converted into gasoline and diesel for use in municipal fleets of cars and trucks. The part of converting landfill gases into liquid, portable transportation fuels is fascinating, a great opportunity, but down the road a bit.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Professor Franz Fischer and Dr. Hans Tropsch were German inventors of the "Fischer-Tropsch" process to create liquid hydrocarbons from carbon monoxide gas and hydrogen using metal catalysts. They are the godfathers of the gas-to-liquids (GTL) technology, enabling companies and technologies like ours to refine the process and make it greener and more efficient.

Dr. Howard Fong is a thirty-five year veteran of Royal Dutch Shell Group who retired at the highest technical level. He currently serves as our chief scientific advisor. Dr. Fong is one of the most capable experts on fuel on the planet. He has a nimble mind and passion for addressing the world's energy and climate challenges.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

I spent 30-plus years in television and new media but I always wanted to be a photographer for National Geographic. The process of putting important things onto a rectangle has always fascinated me and giving voice to things and places that can't speak for themselves.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

U.S. Energy Information Agency (eia.gov). It is a treasure trove of important and up-to-date information about the country and world's energy challenges. It is here that we learn that the United States spends a billion dollars a day buying oil from other countries and that expenditure represents nearly three quarters of the trade deficit.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"Goin' Home." It is an old gospel spiritual made famous by Paul Robeson. It means a lot to me for a number of reasons. My father was a singer in Canada and performed it at countless funerals during his life. He actually recorded a special version some years before he passed and asked that it be played at his "celebration of life." I was honored to sing it recently during funeral services for my mother-in-law. It has a wonderful message of hope and peace.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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