Carbon neutral fuel produced by stripping CO2 from the air and condensing it into a liquid or solid form?
It may sound like a pulp sci-fi plot but is quickly becoming a reality for British Columbian firm Carbon Engineering, acccording to the Chronicle Herald. This recent news comes hand in hand with the publication of a peer-reviewed research endeavor published in Joule pointing to the Canadian firm’s success in capturing carbon dioxide at under $100 per ton.
The process is complex, but a simplified description can serve. Air is pulled through constructed cooling towers, within which is contained a solution of potassium hydroxide. When this solution reacts to the CO2 in the air being pulled through, it produces potassium carbonate. Further refinements in the process eventually produce calcium carbonate. The informal name for the process in common parlance is direct air capture.
Calcium carbonate can be utilized both in solid form, most commonly a pellet that produces a great deal of energy when burned or combined with the hydrogen found in water to potentially produce fuel for cars and even commercial jetliners.
A major concern of climate change activists, conservationist groups, and environmental scientists has been the increasing levels of CO2 entering the atmosphere as a byproduct of human industrialization and developing economies. Long thought of as a last-ditch, long-shot effort, the capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere was considered a pipe dream by many stakeholders until recently. As of 2011, the estimated cost to capture 1 ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere was estimated to be in the vicinity of $600. Carbon Engineering’s CEO Steve Oldham says they can get the job done for a fraction of that cost, projecting a cost per ton of carbon dioxide extracted to be between $92 and $232.
If those numbers hold up, or even better yet – improve – it would mean that the technology is viable for mass production and could revolutionize the entire energy industry. Imagine being transported across the globe in a commercial aircraft powered by fuel derived from thin air. Current costing for the future fuel shows that it is still fairly expensive, about 25 percent more expensive than gasoline sourced from oil, but Oldham is quick to report that they believe that gap can be narrowed substantially.
“We’re tapping into existing industrial equipment and then defining a new process and applying some unique chemistry to it,” said Oldham.
Carbon Engineering was initially backed in their proposal by billionaire philanthropist and American business magnate Bill Gates alongside Canadian oil sands financier Norman Murray Edwards in 2009. Their prototype plant has been working since 2015, with refinements and research being conducted on the capabilities of the technology ever since.