For Our Next Trick, We Will Make Carbon Dioxide Disappear

The world’s first air capture plant would pull CO2 directly from the sky.

carbon capture plant
A rendering of the proposed carbon capture system. (Courtesy Carbon Engineering)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Just last month, The New York Times reported that global emissions of carbon dioxide reached a record high in 2011 and were likely to take another jump in 2012. “The latest indication,” they noted, “that efforts to limit such emissions are failing.”

So if we’re having trouble limiting emissions, why not try and capture them?

That’s the goal of a number of new companies, including Carbon Engineering (CE), a Canadian firm founded in 2009 with funds from investors like Bill Gates. The company hopes to “bring industrial-scale air capture to market, by designing and building the world’s first air capture plant” that would remove carbon dioxide directly from the sky.

MORE: Canada OK’s Carbon Capture Solution for Crude Oil Extraction

“I got started on direct air capture as a bit of a skeptic,” CE President Dr. David Keith told TakePart. Keith, who is also a professor at Harvard, added: “There were divergent claims about its feasibility and cost and I thought that doing some technology policy analysis will be helpful.”

“Essentially we started out as a bounding analysis trying to understand the costs of the lowest risk system using conventional technology,” he said. “At some point we stumbled on something that seemed important and interested investors, which lead me to form the company.”

The company's website explains that their “low technical-risk strategy would put CE’s air capture system on a direct path among competitors to commercialization and deployment at an industrial scale.” 

Asked to elaborate, Geoff Holmes, CE’s Research Scientist explained: “Several of our competitors in the air capture field are pursuing designs that are based on novel materials or processes that have not been used before at industrial scale. If some of these pay out, they could in the long run deliver systems that have lower energy requirements and costs than what we are working on right now.”

“However, one of our main strategic goals as a company is to get an air capture system developed and running in the real world as soon as possible. We believe this is crucial to demonstrate the credibility of the concept all together, and to build the kind of industry support and interest that can then be leveraged to drive costs down and innovate further improvements or next-generation systems.”

In a recent New York Times article, Dr. Keith explained that the firm’s pilot plant “will test the equipment at the scale the vendors tell us they need to provide performance guarantees for a full commercial plant.”

Holmes expanded on this notion for TakePart. “In order to get investor funding for the full-scale systems we wish to build, we need to demonstrate the technology with a small system that risks relatively little capital investment.”

“Also, we need the backing—or performance guarantees—from the vendors that supply the main pieces of equipment that our system will use. In order to get that backing, we need to use scaled-down vendor equipment in our pilot plant so that the vendors can see it work and can gather data to properly guarantee the components at large scale.”

And The Times article noted the geographic flexibility of direct air capture. They quoted Timothy A. Fox, head of energy and environment at London’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers as stating, “It doesn’t matter where you take the carbon dioxide out. You could have air capture machines in the Australian desert to account for New York City car emissions.”

Now that should certainly capture the attention and imagination of a lot of people.

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