As greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, scientists have been working to figure out a technology that can pull carbon out of the air and convert it into useful products.
But it’s not an easy task: Though CO2 levels are rapidly rising (and, as a result, heating the planet) carbon only makes up about .04 percent of the atmosphere. It’s thinly dispersed and hard to catch.
The good news: In the last several years, researchers have cracked the code of catching carbon, and a few companies have popped up to commercialize technology to literally pull carbon out of thin air.
One company, Carbon Engineering, has built a proof-of-concept plant just north of Vancouver in Squamish, British Columbia. Backed in part by Bill Gates, operations at the plant have shown that not only is direct air capture physically possible but it’s also cheap enough to make a successful business while helping to save the planet.
“There’s a lot of discussion of reducing emissions,” says Steve Oldham, the company’s CEO. “But imagine you’re in a parked car on a parking lot on a sunny day and you have the heat on full blast. The first thing you do is turn the heat off. That’s emission control. We absolutely should do that. But it’s still hot in the car and it’s still going to get hotter. You have to open the sunroof and wind down the windows.”
Similarly, Oldham reasons, “We have to reduce the existing impact of CO2 already in the atmosphere.”
Part of the way this might be done is by direct-air capture, or physically removing the CO2 from the air. But how do you do thi? Carbon Engineering had to invent their own technology. The task the company set themselves nine years ago when they launched was to create a system that would run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They didn’t want it to use any consumables and they wanted to put it together with equipment that already existed.
So they borrowed technologies from other industries. From the cooling tower industry they took an air contactor, which is a plastic membrane coated with a proprietary liquid chemical they developed that absorbs about 75 percent of the CO2 that comes into contact with it. Large fans blow air at the membrane and, as the chemical flows down it, carbon is instantly absorbed on contact. The liquid/carbon combination is then moved to a pellet reactor, a technology borrowed from the iron ore industry. The reactor creates another chemical reaction that solidifies the carbon into small pellets and the leftover liquid is recycled back into the air contactor. The pellets, which are one millimeter long, then go into a device which heats them up and turns them into a gas.
From here two things can happen. The first option is that gas can be pumped into a carbon sink—effectively buried back into the ground and removed from circulation in the atmosphere.
The second option is that gas can be combined with hydrogen to make a carbon-neutral gasoline. “We collect the CO2 from the air, we make fuel, you put it back in the atmosphere and we make more fuel. We create a circular usage,” says Oldham. Cars, he noted, are very difficult to make carbon neutral.
And transportation was responsible for 29 percent of carbon emissions in 2016. “For everybody to get an electric car, that’s going to cost a lot of money. There’s going to be a period of turnover. But imagine if you make the fuel carbon neutral, you make any vehicle that uses it carbon neutral. And that will help with emission reduction.”
Oldham says that even though the technology works, the company can’t exist in isolation and make a difference. Their current business plan is to license the technology to anyone who wants to build a plant. That could be governments looking to sink carbon or gas companies looking to create carbon-neutral fuel. Admittedly, he says, the company has only seen interest on the fuel side—a lot of interest.
“There are carbon content regulations in multiple jurisdictions that incentivize lower carbon in the fuel. If you sell our fuel, to work with your existing engine it has to have the same properties as traditional fossil fuel. And our fuel does—but our CO2 is not new CO2. It’s yesterday’s CO2. When you emit it again we’ll collect it again,” he says.
And though governments have not shown interest yet, Oldham points out that virtually all climate models include direct air capture of carbon as a method to solve the problem of global warming. Even if governments didn’t buy the plants directly, instituting a carbon tax could provide incentive for carbon-releasing businesses to get into the direct air capture game.
“The coal industry is looking at how to reduce its carbon footprint. If they’re taxed on the carbon they produce, they’ll come and buy our plants because we’d be cheaper then paying those taxes,” he says. It’s just a numbers game. “The laws of economics will kick in. As long as we’re a lower price than the tax, people will buy our service. Carbon pricing regimes are starting in multiple countries worldwide.”
At the moment, however, the technology is in very fledgling stages. Other than Carbon Engineering’s single plant in Canada, there is at least one other company in Zurich, Switzerland, which has created their own technology. Their plant, the world’s first, opened in May of last year. It remains to be seen if anyone has the desire to scale the technology to a size that’s large enough to make a dent in climate change.
And it’s also important to note that even if this does scale up, it won’t be a enough to save the planet on its own. “We’re not a panacea,” Oldham says. When it comes to reaching the end goal of stopping global warming there are many options that are going to be necessary. Direct air capture, he says, is another tool in the toolkit. And we’re going to need as many as we can get.