Carbon Capture needs to take off, but nobody knows how it’s going to happen. We need innovation, scrutinised, tested and funded. Jim Conca looks at a method of extracting CO2 directly from the air that’s being pioneered by Carbon Engineering in Canada, backed by private investors and government agencies. It grew out of academic work at the University of Calgary and Carnegie Mellon University. It’s “Direct Air Capture” system can remove a ton of CO2 from the air for about $100 today. Conca describes how one plant can capture about a million tons of CO2 per year, so tens of thousands will be needed to reduce atmospheric CO2 to normal levels; nobody should be surprised by the scale required. On top of that, their “Air to Fuel” technology uses the CO2 to produce synthetic fuels for less than $4/gallon (slightly more expensive than fossil fuels, but similar to biofuels). Low-carbon rules and fuel standards can make them very competitive with any fuel. If you want to kill two birds with one stone a process that removes atmospheric CO2 and uses it to create hydrocarbon fuels to displace petroleum products seems a great way to do it, concludes the author.
Extracting CO2 from the air is one of the best ways to reverse climate change without resorting to expensive technologies, convoluted tax schemes or preventing billions of people from getting the energy they need to have a good life.
If you could then make gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel from it, then you’d kill two birds with one stone.That stone is Carbon Engineering.
Since we are failing to curb global carbon emissions at all, we are left with using our huge brains, which got us into this problem in the first place, to try to wangle our way out of it.
Whether that’s solar engineering or cloud seeding to reduce incident solar radiation, or reforestation, or carbon capture and sequestration from burning fossil fuels, or ocean iron fertilisation or putting huge mirrors in space, humans think we can engineer our way around any issue.
And for the most part, we can. We just need to choose wisely so we don’t make matters worse or break the bank.
The best most direct strategy, that has the least bad side-effects, is to remove carbon directly from the atmosphere and make something useful out of it – like fuel – that would further lessen the burden on the environment.
Based in Canada, Carbon Engineering’s Direct Air Capture system directly removes CO2 from the atmosphere, purifies it, and produces a pipeline-ready compressed CO2 liquid using only energy and water. This CO2 can be combined with non-fossil fuel-generated hydrogen, to produce ultra-low carbon intensity hydrocarbon fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and Jet Fuel-A.
The pipeline CO2 can also be used for industrial purposes including production of steel and concrete, coatings and carbon fibers, or enhanced oil recovery.
From its pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia, Carbon Engineering has successfully developed and demonstrated its technologies and has been removing CO2 from the atmosphere since 2015 and converting it into fuels since 2017.
This technology is not fringe, but is supported by Bill Gates, Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Occidental Petroleum and Chevron, among others.
Removing CO2 at $100/ton
Presently, Carbon Engineering’s Direct Air Capture system can remove a ton of CO2 from the air for about $100. Individual systems would be set to capture about a million tons of CO2 per year, requiring some tens of thousands of systems to keep up with global emissions and reduce atmospheric CO2 to normal levels by 2040.
There are just under 70,000 gas stations in the United States alone, so that isn’t very many to save the planet.
For the next step, Carbon Engineering’s Air to Fuel technology produces synthetic, liquid transportation fuels, such as gasoline, diesel, and Jet-A. The process combines CO2 captured from the atmosphere through their Direct Air Capture system with hydrogen to produce hydrocarbon fuels.
Add hydrogen to produce carbon fuels
If the hydrogen is produced from water using nuclear or renewable energy, then the fuel is carbon-neutral. And these fuels are drop-in compatible with today’s transportation infrastructure, engines and aircraft.
These fuels can presently be produced by Carbon Engineering for less than $4/gallon, making them slightly more expensive than fossil fuels, but similar to biofuels. Low-carbon mandates and fuel standards make them very competitive with any fuel.
And the costs will continue to come down.
Small units, located anywhere
But unlike biofuels, CE fuel doesn’t take much land space or water and is independent of weather or geographic location. The fuel also has a high cetane rating, can be blended with fossil fuels to any degree, and doesn’t have the other contaminants that fossil fuels have, like sulphur, nitrogen and particulates.
Making fuel out of the extracted CO2 is not just a side bar to this approach. It could also remove some of the necessity to transport fuels around the country, and the world, to support strategic missions like those of our military.
Liquid fuel and water comprise the majority of the mass transported to deployed military forces. Resupply of fuel and drinking water for troops in-theater costs lives, about 4 lives for every 100 convoys. To dramatically reduce these, our military wants to deploy small nuclear reactors whose resupply is once every several years or more.
Those SMRs could also run Carbon Engineering’s CO2 extraction-to-fuel systems in places where renewables are not feasible, like in remote sites and for most military missions.
The United States Nuclear Navy wants to do just that. And they can use the excess energy from nuclear reactors that already exist on their ships. They can even separate hydrogen from water using the copper-chlorine process, a thermochemical process for which one step needs heat at exactly the core temperature of a nuclear reactor (530°C) on board an aircraft carrier. For that matter, CO2 can also be extracted from seawater.
Increased atmospheric CO2 from hydrocarbon use has also acidified the oceans in a crisis separate from global warming.
So wouldn’t it be nice to remove some of that and remake hydrocarbons that could be used to displace petroleum products like gasoline that helped cause this in the first place.
Dr. James Conca is an earth and environmental scientist and a regular contributor to Forbes magazine
Just from a physics point of view it would be better to use a source of CO2 like a chimney of a concrete furnace or similar. The concentration and therefore the energy consumption is much lower.
Using it for “enhanced oil recovery” seems a bit wierd, given that the goal should be to reduce CO2 emissions.
Producing fuel is an obvious joke. The cost per liter is way to high. The CO2 alone is around 25 cents/liter. On top of that hydrogen and a processing plant is needed to produce fuel. So one could just use the hydrogen. Would be more efficient and cheaper.
Or going electric which is waay more efficient than hydrogen anyway.
We have so many technologies that make current oil (fuel) based tech obsolete. So we should not focus on replacing the oil.
Also all the hydrogen and all the energy needs to be produced from some poerplant.
Roger Arnold says
Just a note about carbon extraction: as Dr. Conca mentions in passing, CO2 can be extracted from the ocean as well as from the atmosphere. The US Navy has done research on ocean extraction of CO2 for synthesis of jet fuel. It could be done aboard nuclear powered aircraft carriers, or special ships attached to a carrier group.
Ultimately, extraction of CO2 from air or from ocean surface waters amounts to the same thing. CO2 extracted from the ocean creates alkalinity, subsequently neutralized naturally by absorption of CO2 from the air. The choice between the two approaches comes down to relative economics.
I don’t know which alternative would work out better, but I have a romantic bias toward the ocean approach. I envision fleets of wind ships sailing back and forth across the trade winds, each harvesting 5 – 10 MW of reliable wind energy. Ships would be crewed by families of “sea gypsies”, trained to live aboard and operate them. At the end of each run, synthesized fuel and perhaps hydroponic produce would be offloaded at a seagoing “freeport” city-ship. The crew could debark for a period of trading, socializing, and R&R in the freeport, while the wind ship was taken out for its next run by an alternate crew.
As I said, a romantic bias. But I think the world’s due for some serious rethinking of lifestyles.
Rex Berglund says
“We have successfully designed a porous material which has a high affinity towards CO2 molecules and can quickly and effectively convert it into useful organic materials,” says Ken-ichi Otake, Kyoto University materials chemist from the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences (iCeMS).
The material is a porous coordination polymer (PCP, also known as MOF; metal-organic framework), a framework consisting of zinc metal ions. The researchers tested their material using X-ray structural analysis and found that it can selectively capture only CO2 molecules with ten times more efficiency than other PCPs.
The material has an organic component with a propeller-like molecular structure, and as CO2 molecules approach the structure, they rotate and rearrange to permit C02 trapping, resulting in slight changes to the molecular channels within the PCP—this allows it to act as molecular sieve that can recognize molecules by size and shape. The PCP is also recyclable; the efficiency of the catalyst did not decrease even after 10 reaction cycles.
“One of the greenest approaches to carbon capture is to recycle the carbon dioxide into high-value chemicals, such as cyclic carbonates which can be used in petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals,” says Susumu Kitagawa, materials chemist at Kyoto University.
After capturing the carbon, the converted material can be used to make polyurethane, a material with a wide variety of applications including clothing, domestic appliances and packaging.
There are many uses for polyurethane, e.g. polyurethane Modular Homes Could Be Key to Hurricane-Resistant Housing:
Further, it can be used in insulation, packing materials, clothing and more: