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This CO2 machine could transform the way we fight climate change

08 June 2018

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. At that point, one of the only ways to reverse the effects is to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, where it otherwise persists for thousands of years.

The DAC technology - combined with access to low-priced, renewable electricity - will allow Carbon Engineering to produce a clean, liquid hydrocarbon fuel that can be mixed with gasoline, and eventually used as a stand-alone fuel, said the former University of Calgary professor who maintains a home in Canmore, Alta.

He said that at the Canadian pilot plant, carbon dioxide has been captured and barrels of fuel have been made.

"Direct air capture is a politically promising route for carbon dioxide removal", said Oliver Geden, of the German Institute for worldwide and Security Affairs.

At least seven companies worldwide are working on the idea.

The Swiss company Climeworks has a 900 ton of Carbon dioxide per year commercial facility that has been operating since 2017. Depending on a variety of design options and economic assumptions, the cost of pulling a tonne of Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere ranges between US$94 and $232. The study concludes it would cost between $94 and $232 per ton of captured carbon dioxide, if existing technologies were implemented on a commercial scale.

"We're tapping into existing industrial equipment and then defining a new process and applying some unique chemistry to it", said Oldham.

We feast on fossil fuels to power our cars, trains, manufacturing plants and cities, but our reliance on them means we continue to flood our atmosphere with carbon dioxide now reaching levels higher than ever before.

"What Carbon Engineering is taking to market is first of all carbon neutral fuels, in that sense we are just another emissions-cutting technology, there is no net removal from the atmosphere", he said.

"We've bought the smallest scalable unit of each piece of technology we have". Commercialization of such plants would allow direct air capture to make a dent in transportation emissions by connecting low-cost renewable energy to low-carbon transportation fuels using Carbon Engineering's AIR TO FUELSTM pathway. That would be competitive in California, where low carbon fuel standards to cut pollution from cars and trucks mean high prices. To make real gains in removing greenhouse gases, the world may eventually need to permanently store massive amounts of captured carbon dioxide, rather than releasing it again when synthetic fuels burn.

Long-distance transportation would welcome such fuel, suggested Keith. That cheap power doesn't magically make an airplane go from Winnipeg to Halifax. 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".

Keith is also founder and chief scientist of Carbon Engineering, a Canadian firm that has been developing the technology.

While avoiding the worst dangers of climate change will likely require sucking carbon dioxide out of the sky, prominent scientists have long dismissed such technologies as far too expensive.

Dr. Keith acknowledged that scaling up to a commercial-size plant can prove more costly than anticipated, but insisted the technology is largely proven.

"Until you really can confirm the costs and performance at scale, you've always got to take those costs with a grain of salt", he says.

"It'd be such a great solution-if it were real", MIT Energy Initiative senior researcher Howard Herzog, who coauthored the study that found costs could top $1,000 a ton, said at the time.

This CO2 machine could transform the way we fight climate change