How to suck carbon dioxide from the sky for fuels and more

Enlarge  Carbon Engineering's pilot plant which captures CO2 from the atmosphere.
Stephen Hui Pembina Institute

Keith explains it like a relatively straightforward process, but Carbon Engineering have been working on the problem of affordably capturing CO2 at a pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia since 2015.

Climeworks estimates it costs them $600 to remove a ton of CO2. A plant that can produce 2,000 barrels of fuel a day would cost about $300 million and take about 3 years to build.

These processes are not really new in industry, and thus have a good chance of being scaled up, says David Keith, a professor of applied physics at Harvard who founded Carbon Engineering to commercialize his technology.

Those numbers are "real progress", says Chris Field, a climate scientist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

The "direct air capture" process starts with common industrial cooling systems and a solution that draws carbon from the air, according to a paper published Thursday in the journal Joule.

However, plans to capture Carbon dioxide directly from the air have been regarded as somewhat more substantial - essentially mirroring the actions of trees.

"The carbon dioxide generated via direct air capture can be combined with sequestration for carbon removal, or it can enable the production of carbon-neutral hydrocarbons, which is a way to take low-priced carbon-free power sources like solar or wind and channel them into fuels that can be used to decarbonize the transportation sector", says lead author David Keith, founder and chief scientist of Carbon Engineering, a Canadian CO2-capture and clean fuels enterprise, and a professor of applied physics and public policy at Harvard University.

Carbon storage, or sequestration, has been seen as one possible solution to the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Having delivered the proof of concept and demonstrated the scalability and affordability of such a system, Keith feels positive about the future of Carbon Engineering's technology. But in 2011, a review panel of the American Physical Society found that DAC would likely cost about $600 per ton of captured CO2.

In a process similar to a pulp mill, the liquid containing the Carbon dioxide is brought to a factory where the acid is separated from the base and frozen into solid pellets, then heated and converted into a slurry. The crucial CO2-capturing chemical is recycled. The CO2 can be pressurized and put into a pipeline and disposed of underground. His process, though, could provide the means to adapt to climate change for activities that are hard to do without producing Carbon dioxide emissions, such as jet travel and producing concrete. The H2 is then combined with Carbon dioxide to make liquid hydrocarbons using conventional chemical engineering technology. Carbon Engineering says it can do the job for between $94 USA and $232 U.S. a tonne because it uses technology and components that are well understood and commercially available.

The company envisions building large-scale plants near wind and solar facilities, which will provide clean energy to enable the carbon capture process, he said. Such fuels are more expensive than standard gasoline and diesel, so the size and stability of the market for them will depend largely on whether subsidies are in place.

Keith says producing synthetic fuels offers a sustainable business model that could help companies scale up and reduce the costs of the technology, easing the path to that eventual goal.

The fuel can now be produced at a cost that would not raise the prices to consumers at the pump, he said, and "as with anything, if you build lots of something the cost will come down". Still, Field cautions that the technology isn't a silver bullet for combatting climate change-there's no way yet to know whether it can scale up quickly enough to alter Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

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