New method to convert atmospheric CO2 into fuel

Enlarge  Carbon Engineering's pilot plant which captures CO2 from the atmosphere.
Stephen Hui Pembina Institute

Enlarge Carbon Engineering's pilot plant which captures CO2 from the atmosphere. Stephen Hui Pembina Institute

The latest tests and cost analysis were conducted by Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company trying to commercialize CO2-extraction technology. Cutting back the amount of Carbon dioxide that's newly pumped into the air is vital, but it might not be enough - we need to suck out some that's already up there.

"This isn't going to save the world from the impacts of climate change, but it's going to be a big step on the path to a low-carbon economy", said David Keith, a Harvard Professor of Applied Physics and founder of Carbon Engineering.

Getting it right also meant keeping the costs below $100 for each ton of Carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere. Carbon Engineering was founded in 2009, and its pilot plant has been running for three years now. The company used existing industrial processes to scale up and reduce costs. This unit would be one of several that would collectively capture 1M tons of Carbon dioxide per year. Also, ADM is capturing just over 1 million tons of Carbon dioxide a year at its Decatur, Illinois, facility, and injecting and storing it in a saline formation. That was far too much to be useful in sucking large amounts of Carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It could be paired with a process in which emissions from a factory or power plant are sequestered, or stored underground, rather than being released into the atmosphere. So the company decided to make a carbon-neutral liquid fuel, said Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering.

The successful implementation of a scalable and cost-effective working pilot plant is a new revelation.

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The resulting fuels, including gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, are compatible with existing fuel distribution and transportation infrastructure. When it's burned it emits the same amount of CO2 that went into making it, so it's effectively carbon neutral. "These guys actually have something you can measure", says Stephen Pacala, an ecologist with Princeton University who is chairing a panel on carbon removal technologies for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Doing that on a large scale would nearly surely require significant cost reductions, a high price on carbon, or other public policy support. British Columbia has a carbon price of C$35 a ton, and all of Canada will have a $10 price in September that will rise to C$50 in 2022.

Previous research and studies into direct air capture (DAC) have suggested that removing a ton of Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would cost US$600, which is too expensive to be a feasible solution, Keith said.

Carbon Engineering has secured $30 million to date. As prices fall, more governments may get on board with the idea of pulling Carbon dioxide out of the air. This will depend on finding a renewable power supplier willing to supply low-price high-capacity power and incentives for low-carbon fuels, The Harvard Gazette reports. The bill also would create education initiatives and encourage inter-agency collaboration to advance these technologies. That could drive a market for DAC plants that would likely drive costs down further, Oldham says. "All you need is air and water as feedstocks, and some electricity".

That would be competitive in California, where low carbon fuel standards to cut pollution from cars and trucks mean high prices. "This must change quickly if we are to fulfil the Paris agreement", she explained.

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