Technology used to capture carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere can save brewers money.

Building on work he and his companies did with Johnson Space Center’s In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) team, Robert Zubrin has developed and commercialized technologies that could prove revolutionary in their Earth applications, such as a system that could extract millions of barrels of oil from defunct oil wells around the world, and another that can harness all the natural gas currently burned off as waste at many oil drilling rigs.

While major breweries have long had systems to capture the CO₂ generated during fermentation, the technology has not been available on a smaller scale. This is the niche Pioneer Energy aims to fill. (Quinn Dombrowski, CC BY-SA 4.0)
But when he’s not working to change this world or colonize others, the president of Pioneer Astronautics, Pioneer Energy (Lakewood, CO), enjoys a good microbrew. Now he’s applied some of that same technology to cut costs for craft breweries. Beginning in the mid- 1990s, as a NASA contractor and then as founder of Pioneer Aeronautics, Zubrin worked with Johnson’s ISRU team to develop technology that could break down elements that are abundant on Mars and turn them into essential resources for exploration missions. Early work devised means to capture the carbon dioxide (CO2) that comprises more than 95 percent of the thin Martian atmosphere and turn it into oxygen and fuel. He built systems that could, for example, collect and separate CO2 from other gases, raise its pressure by two orders of magnitude, combine it with hydrogen to make methane and water, break the water down into oxygen and hydrogen, and remove water vapor from the resulting oxygen before it was stored.

Some of this technology, such as systems that manipulate temperature and pressure to liquefy and store gases or to strip water from a gas, as well as the technology that allows such systems to run autonomously, has found its way into Pioneer Energy’s latest creation, the CO2 Craft Brewery Recovery System. “When you ferment beer, the process that produces alcohol also produces carbon dioxide,” Zubrin explained, noting that CO2 is also necessary later to carbonate the beverage.

Major breweries typically have systems that capture the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation for use in carbonation and other functions, such as purging process tanks. These are high-capacity, multimillion-dollar systems, however, and don’t make sense for a small craft brewery. “We’ve taken our general technology acumen, which we developed under NASA, and applied it here,” Zubrin said. “If you want to get CO2 from the Martian atmosphere, you want to compress it, and you want to liquefy it.” With some modifications, the same technology can put the bubbles into beer.

Pioneer Energy’s CO₂ Craft Brewery Recovery System can recapture about five tons of CO₂ per month, enough for a brewery that generates up to about 60,000 barrels per year, and units can be stacked to increase that capacity.
In the case of a brewery CO2 recovery system, while the device may save a couple thousand dollars a month, it wouldn’t be economical to hire an employee to run it, Zubrin said. “On a smaller scale, this thing’s got to be totally automated, too. The robotic control you would need for a system on Mars is key to this.”

Carbon dioxide typically runs about $200 to $300 a ton, although costs can be much higher depending on the distance from a source, Zubrin said, noting that while the price is currently around $300 in Denver, breweries 300 miles away are paying $600 a ton. A typical brewery producing 60,000 barrels a year and paying $300 a ton for CO2 would save around $15,000 a year using Pioneer’s recovery system. The units are priced to pay for themselves within two years or so.

Quality is another advantage the system offers. The carbon dioxide brewers buy is typically a byproduct from ammonia and urea plants, and may not be entirely pure, Zubrin said. “Here, you’re getting it pure from the fermenter, so it’s high-quality CO2, without even the slightest trace of industrial contaminants. We have tested it, and it is free from air contamination as well.” And, of course, the technology allows reuse of a greenhouse gas that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

By June 2015, the company had taken at least a dozen orders, and the system went into production late last year. Pioneer also has a unit that it brings around the country for demonstrations. Zubrin said the technology has already received a lot of interest. He noted that microbreweries have proliferated over the last decade, a trend that continues today. “Within the United States, there are several thousand breweries that would be targets for this, and probably 20,000 worldwide.”