In April 2017, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere went over 410 parts per million. These suggest that the last time atmospheric CO2 was over 400 ppm was at least as far back as the Pliocene, three to five million years ago, before humans roamed the earth and when the climate was considerably warmer than today.
If we have put too much carbon dioxide into the air, wouldn’t it make sense to simply remove it? Well, yes: it would. Sadly, it’s a costly affair, and doing it on a large enough scale to make a real difference would be arduous. To turn it into a viable technology, we need two things: time, and plenty of money. Billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has taken it as a personal challenge to remove access carbon from the atmosphere.
Carbon Engineering (CE), a company owned in part by Bill Gates, has constructed a prototype plant, installed large fans, and has been extracting around one tonne of pure CO2 every day for a year. Recently, CE passed a major milestone, when it directly began synthesizing a mixture of petrol and diesel, using only CO2 captured from the air and hydrogen split rom water with clean electricity. This carbon-neutral, synthetic petrol and diesel will fuel today’s cars, trucks, ships and planes.
The technology may not sound new, but it would be groundbreaking. In the past, synthetic fuels have been made from Co2 and H2, but on a much smaller scale. Carbon Engineering’s pilot plant is the first instance of Air to Fuels where all the equipment has large-scale industrial precedent. It gives a real indication of commercial performance and viability.
A High-stakes Gamble
Governments have argued that the world’s primary concern shouldn’t be to capture excess CO2, but to make less emissions. In the journal Science, Professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, and Glen Peters research director at the Center for International Climate Research (Cicero) in Norway, argue that technologies to remove excess carbon from the planet may not work at scale.
Critics warn little tested carbon-cutting technologies wouldn’t incentivize governments to make emissions.
Anderson warns that cities are assuming that these technologies will clean up the atmosphere in the future. Such immature, little tested technologies wouldn’t incentivize governments to make less emissions. “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 fail, “our own children will be forced to endure the consequences of rapidly rising temperatures and a highly unstable climate.”
Bill Gates has persuasively argued that cities and companies must invest in a wide range of green energy technologies, from solar grids to sola fuels, even though it may take decades to scale up.
“Breakthroughs in energy technologies could reduce air pollution, help people escape poverty, and avoid the worst effects of climate change,” he wrote in an op-ed on green energy last year. “But here’s the tricky part: we don’t yet know which ones will succeed. So we need to explore lots of ideas with investments from both the government and the private sector.”
Carbon Vacuum Cleaners across the Globe
Four thousand miles away, in the South Yorkshire coalfield outside Sheffield, the UK Carbon Capture and Storage Research Center (UKCCSRC) is experimenting with technologies that would produce negative emissions.
The UKCCSRC is what remains of Britain’s preliminary foray into carbon capture and storage. One billion GBP was granted for companies that would extract CO2 from coal and gas plants and store it. A plan of this magnitude didn’t survive the austerity and UK’s only running carbon capture and storage plant, at Ferrybridge power station, was abandoned.
At a waste incineration facility near Zurich, a Climeworks carbon capture plant is sucking CO2 out of the air. The plant, which opened in May 2017, is the first commercial venture of its kind. By 2050, we’ll need hundreds and thousands of such carbon capture plants to keep global temperatures from rising above the two degrees Celsius, a limit set by the Paris Agreement.
At the Swiss plant, three stacked shipping containers each hold six of Climeworks’ CO2 collectors. Small fans suction air into the collectors, where sponge-like filter soaks up carbon dioxide. It takes up to three hours to fully saturate a filter. Next, the process is reversed where the box closes, and the collector is heated to 100 degrees Celsius, which releases the CO2 in a pure form that can sold, made into other products, or buried underground.
To keep global warming within safe limits, we need to remove an average of 10 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2050.
Climeworks first customer is a greenhouse in Zurich, which uses the CO2 to make its tomatoes and cucumbers grow faster. The carbon capture company is also in talks with beverage manufacturers that use CO2 in sparkling water or soda, located in particularly difficult terrains where trucking a conventional source of CO2 would be extortionate.
The company also plans to use CO2 to make carbon-neutral products. Using renewable energy, Climeworks can split water to create hydrogen, and combine that with the CO2 in various processes to create plastics or fuel.
Quite similar to Carbon Engineering and Climeworks is Global Thermostat. As the name suggests, the green tech startup is focused on removing CO2 from flue gas (Flue gases are emissions from fossil-fuel combustion) to control the average temperature of our planet’s atmosphere.
Co-founded by physicist Peter Eisenberger and Graciela Chichilnisky, a Columbia University economist and mathematician, Global Thermostat has raised: about $15 million in private investment for Climeworks and Carbon Engineering, and $50 million for Global Thermostat.
Each of these negative emissions startups has built a functional plant to prove the viability of their technology. Their technology is robust, meaning they can built a direct air capture plant, small or large, as the client is ready to pay for.
Even at $50 per metric ton of capturing carbon emissions, we are looking at $500 billion each year to capture carbon dioxide from the air to remove 10 billion metric tons by 2050. The figure looks outrageous, but the idea isn’t when we put into perspective what we’re betting against.