Company says it is sucking carbon from air, making fuel

Marco Green
June 9, 2018

David Keith, a Harvard physics professor and lead author of the paper, says the findings should shift the perception of direct air capture from "vaporware" to "something that can be built with current industrial technologies now".

A British Columbia company says in newly published research that it's doing just that - and for less than one-third the cost of other companies working on the same technology. The company has been sucking carbon dioxide from the air since 2015 and producing fuel at a pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia, since since the end of past year.

A similar company in Europe, Climeworks, has already built two carbon capture facilities.

A previous study carried out by the American Physical Society in 2011 suggested that the cost per tonne of direct air capture would be around $600.

Dr. Keith acknowledged that scaling up to a commercial-size plant can prove more costly than anticipated, but insisted the technology is largely proven. However, the company plan to use the gas - with the addition of hydrogen derived from water - to make a carbon-neutral synthetic fuel that can be directly used by cars, boats, and planes.

Currently, researchers and clean-tech companies have focused on capturing carbon dioxide from emissions streams for fossil fuel plants, such as coal-fired power plants or natural gas-fired turbines.

"[Carbon Engineering's] vision is to reduce the effects of climate change by first cutting emissions, then by reducing atmospheric CO2", explains the company's CEO Steve Oldham.

Carbon Engineering is entering the race to suck carbon from the sky and turn it into automotive fuels.

Carbon Engineering acknowledges that their work isn't going to end global warming, but they say it could help bridge the gap between today's economy and its reliance on fossil fuel and a future economy powered by sustainable energies.

"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 decarbonise the transportation sector", said lead author David Keith, founder and chief scientist of Carbon Engineering and professor of applied physics and public policy at Harvard University.

That footprint would shrink further if the plant were all-electric. "Our clean fuel is fully compatible with existing engines, so it provides the transportation sector with a solution for significantly reducing emissions, either through blending or direct use".

The process has been demonstrated at a small scale and combines common technologies from the pulp and petroleum industries to capture carbon and hydrogenate it back into complex hydrocarbons that could be recycled for fuel.

That's important because solar and wind power continue to get cheaper, even powering entire cities, but Keith says that "doesn't allow us to make airplanes fly and trucks drive". The market will get a further boost as the Canadian government and US states adopt clean fuel standards that will provide incentives for marketers to purchase low-carbon alternatives. "That's the core idea here".

Making direct air capture as cheap as possible is critical because a growing body of work finds it's going to be almost impossible to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 ˚C without rolling out some form of the technology on a huge scale. "We're ready to build a much larger plant".

One of the great benefits of making fuel from air is energy independence, said Oldham. That means that all the pieces are in place to move on to full-size plants capable of manufacturing 2,000 barrels of fuels per day- totaling over 30 million gallons per year across plants. "They'd be no longer dependent on the geopolitical situation if Country X has oil and Country Y does not".

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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