Sunday, August 14, 2016

Canadian company turns air into fuel in climate change fight

Canadian company turns air into fuel in climate change fight
Huffington Post, 5 July 2016, by Dominique Mosbergen

Continuing in the vein of my recent posts about carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), this article discusses current efforts to capture CO2 directly out of the air, often called "direct air capture".  This technology could be used to pressurize CO2 and store it underground (thereby taking it out of the atmosphere permanently, assuming it doesn't leak back out), or it could be used to turn the CO2 into fuel that can then be burned (a carbon-neutral process, in theory, since all the CO2 released by burning the fuel was originally captured from the air).  In particular, the article touts a firm called Carbon Engineering that is taking the second approach.  Carbon Engineering claims that it can capture CO2 for about $100/ton in its process, which involves splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, then combining the hydrogen with CO2 to produce fuel that they will ultimately sell at a profit for "about $4 to $6 a gallon".  They claim that their process is scalable and could play a major role in combating climate change.  They have the backing of Bill Gates and some other deep-pocketed individuals, and are presently building a pilot plant that they say will produce about 1000 barrels of fuel per day, while removing 100,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year (equivalent to the carbon footprint of about 25,000 vehicles, they say).

My take: Color me skeptical.  Direct air capture has been discussed for decades, but it has always been way, way too expensive to be cost-effective, and nothing in this article convinces me that Carbon Engineering has cracked that problem.  Even capturing CO2 directly from the emissions streams of coal and gas plants, where the CO2 is extremely concentrated, is very difficult to do efficiently and cost-effectively (as shown by the failure of the Kemper plant that I discussed in my previous post).  Capturing CO2 from the atmosphere, where its concentration is only about 0.04%, is much more difficult still.  The fact that Gates is putting his money behind this tempers my skepticism somewhat – Gates is a smart man, whatever one might think of him – but since the article provides no technical details whatsoever regarding how Carbon Engineering has managed to cut the cost of direct air capture by an order of magnitude compared to previous attempts... well, I'm not betting on this technology being successful.  I would also note that at $4-$6 per gallon and $100/ton CO2, even if their technology works they will have trouble selling it unless governments put a high price on carbon emissions.  A carbon fee-and-dividend scheme would allow projects like this to be economically viable – if the technology actually works, that is.

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