Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels haven’t been this high in 800,000 years, according to last year’s report by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization. Let’s rewind back to science class for a moment. Remember carbon dioxide? That bully of a greenhouse gas that traps the sun’s heat in the atmosphere? Without consistent (and persistent) effort to remove the excess gas, it can remain in the earth’s atmosphere for thousands of years, thus accelerating climate change. One Canadian company in Squamish, British Columbia wants to go further than just “removing” carbon from the atmosphere. They want to capture that CO2 and turn it back into reusable gas and diesel that can be used in existing cars, trucks, or planes.
This innovative process developed by the Gates Foundation funded company Carbon Engineering is called Air-to-Fuels (or A2F). While the idea of capturing carbon and synthesizing fuel isn’t new, only recently have researchers made significant headway on running the process with solar energy alone.
Here’s how it works: First, over one ton of CO2 is captured per day from the air and purified. Next, clean electricity, such as solar and wind power, is used to split hydrogen from water. In the final step, the CO2 and hydrogen are synthesized into fuel, such as diesel and jet fuel. By using this environmentally sensitive approach, the facility uses less land and water than biofuels. At the current rate, the technology could produce fuel for less than $1 per liter or less than $3 per gallon. “A2F is a potentially game-changing technology,” explains Geoff Holmes of Carbon Engineering. It “offers an alternative to biofuels and a complement to electric vehicles in the effort to displace fossil fuels from transportation”.
The Air-to-Fuels model is set up to be sustainable, meaning that all CO2 is conserved. It is neither destroyed nor increased. The extracted carbon extracted is returned to the sky when jets or cars use the synthesized fuel, thus completing one cycle and triggering the next cycle of extraction.
The People Behind the Process
David Keith, a former University of Calgary physicist and current faculty member at Harvard University, is the founder and executive chairman of Carbon Engineering. Noted by Time Magazine as a “hero of the environment,” Keith has spent over 25 years researching and experimenting to find applicable solutions for the climate crisis.
Much of Carbon Engineering’s success would not have been possible without the support of a few high-net worth individuals who champion climate control research, such as Bill Gates and Murray Edward, the billionaire chairman of Canadian Natural Resources (a major oil-sands mine operator). Because of their extremely generous investments, Carbon Engineering began transforming their vision into a reality seven years earlier than estimated.
What the Critics Say
Critics argue that the world’s main priority should not be to capture CO2, but to emit less of it in the first place.
Professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, warns that governments may assume that air-to-fuel technologies will clean up the atmosphere in the future. This could lead to less of an incentive to cut emissions in the present. Anderson also points out that many of these new technologies have not yet proved to be a successful on a large scale. “They are not an insurance policy; they are a high-risk gamble with tomorrow’s generations, particularly those living in poor and climatically vulnerable communities, set to pay the price if our high-stakes bet fails to deliver as promised,” Anderson says. If the technologies are not as successful as promised, “our own children will be forced to endure the consequences of rapidly rising temperatures and a highly unstable climate.”
An artist’s rendering of what Carbon Engineering’s direct-air-capture project will look like when completed.
Not the Only CO2 Warriors
It is true that we should strive to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions, and that one lone company such as Carbon Engineering will not be able to remove all carbon dioxide single-handedly.
Thankfully, they don’t have to fly solo. There are about a half dozen companies worldwide who have been tackling direct air capture technology, in addition to Carbon Engineering, for the past couple of years. For example, in 2015, German car manufacturer Audi created a carbon-neutral diesel fuel made out of water, carbon dioxide and renewable energy sources.” Skytree, a Dutch startup that makes CO2 measuring technology already in use on the International Space System, is currently experimenting with how to use that same technology for outdoor and indoor air purification. They plan to use CO2 to make products like plastic which can then be recycled.
The Future of Carbon Engineering and CO2 Emissions
Carbon Engineering plans to start selling their low-carbon fuel commercially in 2019, and have a set goal for themselves to create up to 10,000 barrels of fuel a day — and that would just be one plant. The company aims to eventually build enough plants to capture many millions of tons of CO2 from the air. But we’re not ready to breathe easy yet. Experts have enacted a ticking clock on the situation and say that net carbon dioxide emissions must decrease to nearly zero by 2050, or else atmospheric damage could be irreversible.
Find out how you can lower your own CO2 emissions here.