Carbon engineering: A possible climate solution?

Image by Joe Dyndale | flickr.com

Image by Joe Dyndale | flickr.com

What if I told you that it was possible to turn air into fuel? Though it seem like a pipe dream, Carbon Engineering (CE) conducts a technological strategy that allows for the capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to be turned into ultra-low carbon fuels.  This technology would be revolutionary, as it would sustain industrial production while the world begins to phase out fossil fuels.

So what would this look like in practice? It would be a giant wall of fans that could absorb emissions from 300,000 cars. Conveniently, these walls could be built in places that aren’t worth cultivating, such as deserts. Since carbon dioxide is emitted into the air and will remain for hundreds of years, air capture could serve as a very useful tool for mitigating the impacts of climate change.

While trees and plants help take up CO2, they also require a vast amount of land and take years to grow. Direct air capture, on the other hand, can withdraw a lot more CO2 per acre of land than plants. Unlike the lengthy process of growing trees, direct air capture results can be immediate. Additionally, it would output a stream of pure CO2, which could be used in industrial applications or stored underground.

CE is an independent Canadian company from Calgary, Alberta. They formed in 2009 thanks to private investors such as Bill Gates and Murray Edwards. Professor David Keith’s research groups at the University of Calgary and Carnegie Mellon University performed the academic work on carbon management technologies.

The company has accomplished a lot since then, including a 3-year research and development phase, which produced the design, engineering and cost assessment for the direct air capture system. CE has been working on the pilot phase of their project since 2013, which is the last step before they build a first-of-its-kind commercial air capture plant in 2017.

The technology consists of a two-step process consisting of an air contactor and a regeneration cycle, for constant capture of atmospheric carbon dioxide and production of pure CO2.

Once CO2 is captured from the air, it can be integrated into liquid fuel production to create liquid hydrocarbons compatible with cars and planes, but that have a low or even zero carbon intensity.  The CO2 could also be supplied for algae-growth in industrial-scale ponds, which can be processed and refined into bio-fuels.

There is a high demand across the world for liquid fuels with low-cycle carbon-intensity. California, in particular, has a low carbon fuel standard in effect, thus creating significant demand for these fuels. As countries strive to cut CO2 emissions, air-capture becomes an ideal solution for tightly regulated markets. This is because air-capture directly removes CO2 from the air and then integrates it back into the fuel production chain, creating an almost entirely sustainable process.

Air-capture would also be cost-effective, sitting at around $100 per tonne.

Although this technology would serve as a great tool for the fight against climate change, it would not completely eliminate its harmful effects. Extracting and transporting oil still has tremendous negative environmental impacts to the Earth, and air-capture should not be used as justification to continue burning fossil fuels instead of investing in renewable energies. It should be used only as a long-term solution to deal with emissions that can’t be dealt with in another way.

To watch a video describing the air-capture project in detail, or to find out more about Carbon Engineering, visit their website here.