Unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide are warming the atmosphere, and Carbon Engineering wants to fix it. The Canadian company Carbon Engineering promises to use their new method to suck the CO2 out of the air. Since 2015, Carbon Engineering has been testing a CO2 removal pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia. Its direct air capture technology uses massive fans and chemical reactions to extract CO2 and turn it into fuel.
The technology to take CO2 out of the air has been around for about 70 years now. Commercial capture of CO2 from the air began with cryogenic air separation, a process that cools air to separate the constituent gases for industrial or research purposes. The technology for using CO2 to make fuels is also an old invention. It originated in the 1960s in nuclear power plants. Then in the 1990s, Klaus Lackner, currently at Arizona State University, began exploring ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere to reduce the planet's greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon Engineering at Work
But the technology to reduce atmospheric CO2 was too expensive until recently. In a 2018 paper in the journal Joule, Carbon Engineering showed that they can remove CO2 from the atmosphere for between $94 and $232 per ton, compared to prior estimates of about $600. This paper showed that what Carbon Engineering promises might actually be doable. At their pilot plant, fans pull in air, and a honeycomb structure inside the fans coated with a chemical solution traps some of the CO2. Currently, the plant runs on natural gas, but the company plans to fully run on renewables in the future.
Pictured are the massive fans that would suck the CO2 from the air in Carbon Engineering's full-scale plant. Image from Carbon Engineering.
Carbon Engineering's findings are an important development. Negative emissions solutions, like direct air capture technology, are key ingredients to keep the planet's warming below 2°C, as stated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
According to the company website, Carbon Engineering's technology works, and soon they'll begin building on an industrial scale. Carbon Engineering claims that once finished, the soon-to-be largest direct air capture plant will capture a million tons of CO2 each year. After sucking the CO2 from the air, Carbon Engineering uses the gas to make synthetic fuel, which can be used in place of fossil fuels. With this two-pronged approach, the company can both remove current emissions from the atmosphere and reduce future emissions.
But not everyone supports further development of direct air capture. For starters, preventing harmful emissions is cheaper. While Carbon Engineering's technology can take carbon dioxide out of the air for between $94 and $232 per ton, most renewable energy sources can prevent that CO2 from entering the atmosphere at all for less.
Some fear that direct air capture gives fossil fuel giants permission to keep polluting since machines can simply pull the emissions from the air. These concerns aren't baseless. Carbon Engineering is funded by, among other entities, oil companies like Chevron, Occidental and BHP. Civil & environmental engineering professor at Stanford Mark Jacobson told CNBC that with this kind of partnership, "You're not stopping the fossil fuel industry. You're actually promoting it."
Carbon Engineering is working with Occidental to enhance oil drilling with captured CO2.
Occidental and Carbon Engineering are working together to build a plant to use captured CO2 in enhanced oil recovery. Occidental will inject the CO2 underground to extract more oil. "They can then take the CO2 and increase their oil production, which means we'll burn more oil," said Jacobson in the CNBC interview.
But there are few financial incentives for simply burying CO2. Governments lag behind in funding this technology, which is why Carbon Engineering relies on the oil industry.
Other Negative-Emissions Solutions
The IPCC does say that the world needs negative emissions tech to keep warming under control, but this doesn't solely rely on companies like Carbon Engineering. Doing so would risk the technology failing to scale to meet the demands of increased emissions.
Other solutions include preserving forests and wetlands, and potentially reforestation. Forests and wetlands are huge carbon sinks, storing carbon in biomass and soil. However, this solution is not as simple as "plant more trees." Trees can also have warming effects due to the amount of light and heat they absorb. Additionally, forests only store CO2 on the time scale of decades to centuries.
Forests store large amounts of carbon in their biomass and in soils.
Still other solutions harness the carbon-storing power of the abiotic world. Agricultural innovations, like no-till farming, can increase the amount that carbon soils can store. Enhanced weathering is another potential solution. Some rocks have minerals that, when exposed to air, react with CO2. Enhanced weathering speeds up the natural weathering process by grinding rock and spreading it on land. This exposes more rock to the atmosphere, allowing it to react with more CO2.
While these solutions carry their own challenges, one thing is certain. Scientists generally agree that without negative-emissions technologies and solutions, it's unlikely the world will avoid keeping global warming below 2°C.