Technological Advances for Removing CO2 From Our Atmosphere Continue Their Stride

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on August 07, 2018
Vicky Harris
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“Red-hot planet: All-time heat records have been set all over the world during the past week.” This was the headline of a July 5th Washington Post article. News about record temperatures, from Antarctica to California, have become so common that we barely pay attention to them. Our planet is warming and the delicate balance that has produced the temperate climate we’ve thrived in for thousands of years could be disrupted. Climate, as any climate scientist would attest to, is a complicated system. Thousands of variables come into play, some exerting more influence than others.

We know that one of the variables that has a direct effect on the range of “red hot” temperatures the Washington Post article refers to is carbon dioxide, which is “the most significant long-lived greenhouse gas in Earth’s atmosphere,” according to Wikipedia. CO2 is one of the few factors that impact climate that we can directly influence. This week, we explore some interesting initiatives to tackle the problem of CO2 as a greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. There are two sides to deal with this problem: emissions and removal. We focus on the latter, analyzing the creative use of technology to withdraw carbon from our atmosphere and store it in forms that do not impact our climate.

Rocks made of CO2  is a green future we can see on the horizon.

Carbon Removal Comes of Age

Just a few years ago, the term “carbon renewal” sounded like good intentions to combat global warming given the fact that, to have any measurable impact, removing CO2 needs to work on a global scale. However, technological advances over the past decade, as in many other areas, now make these initiatives not only possible but increasingly affordable.

The Center for Carbon Removal shares a good definition of the problem and what CO2 removal is all about:

“What is Carbon Removal? Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere. As their concentration climbs, the global average temperature climbs with it. The result is a feedback loop of environmental, climate, and health impacts that affect ecosystems and communities around the world. This accelerated pace of warming—and the far-reaching consequences—is climate change.

In an effort to slow warming, scientists and policymakers have pushed for measures to limit the behaviors driving climate change. “Carbon removal” (sometimes called carbon dioxide removal or negative emissions) is an umbrella category for a handful of these solutions.

Carbon Removal makes the most of natural processes that recycle and reuse carbon, like photosynthesis and carbon mineralization, to reset the balance. It also finds ways to integrate these time-tested processes with newer, innovative solutions for storing carbon.”

Scientific American categorizes this technology as “carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS)—a cohort of technologies that pull carbon dioxide from smokestacks, or even from the air, and convert it into useful materials or store it underground.” The article highlights the important role CCUS technology plays, citing the International Energy Agency (IEA), “By 2050 carbon capture and storage must provide at least 13 percent of the reductions needed to keep warming in check.” They go on to identify three primary use cases for CCUS technology in meeting the IEA projection: “retrofitting existing power plants to strip carbon dioxide from the exhaust produced by fossil-fuel electricity plants; reducing emissions in industries that cannot run on renewable energy; and directly removing carbon from the air.” Let’s now take a look at two innovative examples of carbon removal from the air.

Making CONeutral Fuel at an Affordable Cost

A couple of months ago, BBC published an insightful article on what they called a “key step forward” in technology to remove CO2 at a cost that is six-times lower than existing alternatives. They cite a peer-reviewed scientific paper entitled, “A Process for Capturing CO2 from the Atmosphere,” that explains a new system that uses turbines to extract carbon out of the air at a cost of about $600 per ton. While there are many initiatives around the world that already do this, what’s new and exciting about this method is that it uses carbon to produce synthetic liquid fuel.

This innovative method comes from a Canadian company, Carbon Engineering, whose investors include Bill Gates and Canadian oil sands financier Norman Murray Edwards. The BBC reports that the company, “is currently making around one barrel a day by combining the pure CO2 with hydrogen derived from water, using renewable energy.” They capture about one ton of carbon per day at a cost of $100. Professor David Keith from Harvard University, who is a founder of Carbon Engineering, calls their end product a “carbon-neutral fuel,” in his words: “What Carbon Engineering is taking to market is, first of all, carbon-neutral fuels. In that sense, we are just another emissions-cutting technology; there is no net removal from the atmosphere.”

Making Rocks with CO2

If all the current machines in the world ran on synthetic fuel similar to what Carbon Engineering produces, the amount of man-made CO2 in the atmosphere would stay the same. This would be a significant accomplishment since this type of fuel takes CO2 from the ambient and returns it when it is combusted. Other techniques extract carbon in a similar way but sequesters the carbon in a form that doesn’t put it back into the atmosphere. One such approach reported by the BBC is a carbon removal initiative in Iceland that turns the carbon into rock. This project, called CarbFix, is backed by Reykjavík Energy, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the University of Iceland, and Columbia University.

The process used by CarbFix is quite interesting. The BBC explains that the process “starts with the capture of waste CO2 from the steam, which is then dissolved into large volumes of water.” CO2 bubbles are added to the water in a similar way as a soda-making machine does. The big breakthrough comes next: “The fizzy liquid is then piped to the injection site―an otherworldly, geometric igloo-shaped structure 2km away. There it is pumped 1,000m (3,200ft) beneath the surface. In a matter of months, chemical reactions will solidify the CO2 into rock, thus, preventing it from escaping back into the atmosphere for millions of years.” Experiments began in 2014, and now, the article reports, “it’s been scaled up from a pilot project to a permanent solution, cleaning up a third of the plant’s [Iceland’s main electricity plant] carbon emissions.”

CO2 in the Atmosphere: A Problem With a Solution

These two creative approaches use technology to tackle the greenhouse carbon problem from the perspective of taking what is already in the atmosphere and transforming it, making carbon-neutral fuels in the former and sequestering carbon gas as rock in the latter. Both initiatives are past the point of tests and into the scaling phase.

However, our carbon emissions are a global problem that needs to be tackled from many different angles if we are serious about reducing greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Technological innovation is bringing emission-free fuel sources to market, such as hydrogen, to power everything from cars and busses to data centers. Clean hydrogen production using excess wind and solar results in emissions-free hydrogen that is good for the environment. Other ways of producing clean and affordable energy, such as Hydrogen 2.0, are making their way to market to address needs not currently solved by renewables, such as the 24/7 production of fuel on-site and on-demand using a substance as abundant as water.

All these initiatives point to a bright future that will bring the clean energy we all want and need for future generations to continue to thrive.

 

Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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