"These guys actually have something you can measure", says Stephen Pacala, an ecologist with Princeton University who is chairing a panel on carbon removal technologies for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Depending on a variety of design options and economic assumptions, the cost of pulling a tonne of Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere ranges between US$94 and $232. Carbon Engineering's technique was developed specifically to address this.
The company believes it can produce virtually-zero-carbon fuel at cost roughly 25 per cent higher than that of traditional gasoline, but will see even greater revenues due to various climate-change policies that put a premium on low-carbon alternatives.
While Carbon Engineering's $4 price point is about 40 percent higher than fossil fuels, it may be competitive in markets like California that require cleaner low-carbon fuels, Keith said.
Currently, researchers and clean-tech companies have focused on capturing carbon dioxide from emissions streams for fossil fuel plants, such as coal-fired power plants or natural gas-fired turbines.
Last year, a Swiss company called Climeworks unveiled a direct air capture installation that extracted carbon and supplied it to a neighbouring greenhouse to fertilise tomatoes and cucumbers.
He compared the idea of recycling atmospheric carbon into fuel to the idea of converting all the cars in the world, estimated at more than 1 billion, to electric and fueling them with electricity from renewable sources, which he said would be incredibly costly and disruptive.
Direct air capture technology works nearly exactly like it sounds. The results: Their technology can capture Carbon dioxide for between $94 and $232 per ton, they report today in Joule.
In addition to funds raised by Carbon Engineering, this work was supported by the British Columbia Innovative Clean Energy Fund, Sustainable Development Technologies Canada, the Industrial Research Assistanceship Program, and the U.S. Department of Energy.
"If these aren't renewable fuels, what are?" said David Keith, professor of applied physics at Harvard University, lead author of the paper and principal in Carbon Engineering.
The company has also built a pilot operation to turn captured Carbon dioxide into a variety of liquid fuels, including gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Since its components are off the rack, it should be easy to scale up, Oldham said. With small modifications of well-known processes scientists both inside and outside of Carbon Engineering are optimistic that the technology could be expanded to larger operations.
Having delivered the proof of concept and demonstrated the scalability and affordability of such a system, Keith feels positive about the future of Carbon Engineering's technology. The company is now making around one barrel a day by combining the pure Carbon dioxide with hydrogen derived from water, using renewable energy. It means that the carbon dioxide would essentially be recycled back into the fuels that generated it.
Keith says it is still cheaper to cut emissions of carbon dioxide than to remediate them. "By making the fuel carbon neutral, the entire transportation sector can become carbon neutral without changing all of the infrastructure - we don't all have to get a new vehicle, we don't have to replace every gas station with an electric grid for charging".
"For liquid fuels we need better answers, this approach, Carbon dioxide from the air plus hydrogen you get from renewables to make fuels, that's the pathway". That means that all the pieces are in place to move on to full-size plants capable of manufacturing 2,000 barrels of fuels per day- totaling over 30 million gallons per year across plants.