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Can We Really Suck Carbon out of the Air?

An experimental facility just opened near Vancouver, British Columbia, that uses giant fans to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and then store it in little pellets of calcium carbonate that can be safely buried or used as raw material for new fuel. This process is called direct-air carbon capture (DAC).


CE senior process engineer Jane Ritchie holds solid calcium carbonate pellets that were formed by precipitating captured carbon dioxide at Calgary-based Carbon Engineering’s first direct air capture plant in Squamish, B.C. Source: Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press.

The experimental facility is run by Carbon Engineering, founded in 2009 by David Keith, a Harvard climate scientist and environmental science pioneer. The company’s CEO is Adrian Corless, a scientist with a background in alternative energy and venture capitalism. The small plant in Squamish, a town populated mostly by the members of the Squamish Nation, is a small-scale pilot facility. In its first few months of operation it sucked 10 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When trapped in the pellets, the carbon can later be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic fuel suitable for ships and airplanes. So far, however, the statistics are slight: At full power, the plant can capture only about a ton of carbon per day, which works out to the equivalent of eliminating 100 cars from the road per year. Not enough to make much of a dent, even in British Columbia.

But it’s a laudable start. If all goes well with the pilot operation, Carbon Engineering plans on scaling up the process in a new $200 million plant scheduled to become operational by 2017. The goal is to capture up to a million tons of carbon dioxide a day. This can be transformed into 52 to 100 gallons of gasoline—not a whole heck of a lot, although Corless told the CBC that “there are no real limitations for it to ultimately, in theory, displace all of the existing fossil-based transportation fuels.” According to Corless, the technology has been available for a while; Carbon Engineering is simply the first company to put all the pieces together.

The Squamish facility, which runs on natural gas, is not the first carbon capture project to go live—it’s not even the first in Canada. The SaskPower carbon capture and storage facility in Estevan, Saskatchewan, opened in 2014. But the Boundary Dam facility, as it’s known, is a traditional coal-burning power plant that captures its carbon emissions instead of smokestacking them into the sky. The Carbon Engineering plant is the reverse: It takes carbon from the air and makes fuel from it. The advantage of this technique is that it allows the capture of non-point source carbon emissions—those that do not come from a power plant; i.e., all the vehicles on the roads, seas, and skies.

Carbon Engineering’s lynchpin is its pellet reactor system. This allows the carbon that is captured from the atmosphere in liquid form to be transformed into a storable solid through a chemical reaction. The idea is that the carbon pellets serve as a conduit that gets the carbon from the atmosphere to its new usable fuel form.

Carbon Engineering’s Pellet Reactor System being installed at the demonstration plant in Squamish, British Columbia. Source:

Carbon Engineering’s Pellet Reactor System being installed at the demonstration plant in Squamish, British Columbia. Source:

So will large-scale carbon capture technology soon become a reality? It’s promising that the kinks in the technology have been ironed out, but those of us who have watched the slow growth of renewable energy sources in the face of advancing climate change aren’t holding our breath. Wind and solar have been proven concepts for decades. The real hurdles are economic. Carbon Engineering is well aware of this, however, and its business plan is focused on providing a cost-efficient, low-carbon transportation fuel.

Keith, as a scientist and entrepreneur, is a valuable player in this emerging technology. In his 2009 article in Science magazine, he stated that “unless we can remove CO2 from the air faster than nature does, we will consign Earth to a warmer future for millennia or commit ourselves to a sustained program of climate engineering.”

I love the company’s optimism, but I’ve seen so many of these endeavors come and go over the years that I’m a bit jaded. Previous efforts at carbon capture and sequestration focused on pumping vast quantities of CO2 underground and hoping it stays there. (Maybe it will, and maybe it’ll cause earthquakes like fracking does.) Carbon Engineering’s plan to make lemonade out of lemons, rather than just hiding the lemons in a big underground hole is visionary. But most visionaries are initially seen as crackpots, whether you’re Nikola Tesla building the Wardenclyffe Tower or Elon Musk promoting the hyperloop. Yet as every bullish stockbroker with a fetish for triple-digit growth says in the face of overwhelming evidence of an unsustainable bubble: “This time it’s different.”



Posted on: October 29, 2015, 1:37 pm Category: Admin

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