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A US firm has come up with a plan to turn the carbon dioxide emitted by coal-burning power plants into bicarbonate of soda.

Joe David Jones, founder of Skyonic, says he can capture 90 per cent of the carbon coming out of a smokestack and turn it into a harmless baking ingredient thanks to his Skymine process. The "baking soda" as Americans call it could then be used in industry, sold as a food additive, or simply buried in old mines.

The idea was sparked while he was watching a documentary about long distance space travel that was exploring ways of dealing with carbon dioxide in the limited atmosphere of a Mars-bound spacecraft.

Some googling, and little more serious research later, and he'd come up with Skymine. Rather handily, the system also removes 97 per cent of the heavy metals produced by power stations, and many nitrogen and sulphur compounds too. The energy required to drive the reaction comes from the waste heat of the power station.

The system is being piloted at the Big Brown Steam Electric Station in Fairfield, Texas, owned by a utility firm called Luminant. A spokesman told CNet that the process was working pretty well, but that there was "still a lot of work to be done".

Coal is becoming proportionally more polluting, as developing nations drive their economies by burning it. According to the US Energy Information Agency, coal produced roughly 26 per cent of the world's power supply, in 2004, and accounted for 39 per cent of the CO2 emissions. By 2010, it is expected to have passed oil as the single biggest source of carbon emissions on the planet.

Of course, the Skymining solution does leave the question of what to do with all that bicarbonate of soda. Assuming an average 500-megawatt power plant produces 338,000 tons of CO2 a year, we'd be left with a pile of bicarb roughly twice as large.

Never mind. We're sure Kim and Aggie can find a use for it, somewhere. ®

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