Right now, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies focus on industrial point sources, which account for just 40% of total global emissions. But what about the other 60%? These emissions are the result of diffuse and mobile sources, like cars, home heating, and even land use change; many of these sources can be incredibly difficult and costly to control. With the help of direct air capture (DAC) technology, Carbon Engineering is hoping to change that.
Founded by Professor David Keith of Harvard University, Carbon Engineering aims to do what traditional carbon capture cannot by capturing atmospheric CO2 with DAC technology, in order to reduce emissions from sources that are otherwise hard to manage. “Our goal is to absorb industrially significant quantities of CO2 directly from the air, not from flue stacks,” says Geoffrey Holmes of Carbon Engineering. CCS captures CO2 from large point sources, like industrial power plants. Direct air capture, however, extracts CO2 directly from the atmosphere, where it is evenly distributed, so that DAC can be performed anywhere with equal environmental benefit. “We don’t view CCS and DAC as competitors, we view them as complements,” stresses Holmes.
Direct air capture does indeed cost more (per ton of CO2 captured) than CCS, since atmospheric CO2 is much more dilute than that from industrial sources. To counter the initial higher cost of capture, Carbon Engineering is focusing on the low carbon transportation fuel industry. Purified atmospheric CO2 can be used to produce liquid fuel that will have a low carbon intensity, and thus a high financial value in these growing markets. This can be accomplished through enhanced oil recovery, algal biofuel production, or even direct fuel synthesis. Despite the higher cost for purified CO2 from DAC, the use of atmospheric CO2 - rather than re-captured fossil CO2 – can produce ultra-low carbon fuels, who’s attributes can offset the high cost of capture.
Using tested, low technical risk equipment, Carbon Engineering plans to launch their first pilot at the end of this year. From there, the company will focus on business development and how to implement full-scale DAC facilities. “Our next roadblock will be market readiness. Surprisingly to some, there are markets today that will provide the revenue we need for business, but they are still evolving and nobody has tested out our specific business model yet,” explains Holmes. Right now, Carbon Engineering is focusing on California, whose Low Carbon Fuel Standard provides a niche market for valuable CO2. “But California is ahead of the pack on this. Further adoption in other markets can only strengthen our business and gives us more space.” Other applications for Carbon Engineering’s purified CO2 include enhanced oil recovery operations or algal biofuel production.
Carbon Engineering’s technology has enormous potential. As Holmes suggests, “This technology could make a huge dent if that’s what people and societies decide they want to do. Theoretically, you could build any number of these facilities to capture gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere, but economies would have to decide that’s the route they want to go. They would have to prioritize how much of our technology to deploy relative to traditional CCS, solar electricity, battery powered vehicles, biofuels and other choices. Even with our self-interest in DAC, all of us at CE would like to see a broad portfolio of these options developed, and each used where it is most suitable. It’s hard for us to predict what capacity we will end up deploying at, but the potential is very large, and we see that as motivation to take DAC seriously.”
To learn more about DAC, check out Carbon Engineering.