A MACHINE THAT FARMS THE SKY 1
In British Columbia, there's a little valley where the Squamish River snakes down past the cliffs of the Malamute, a popular hiking spot. The hills in all directions are, like much of BC, thickly forested with firs. And nestled in that valley is a newfangled industrial plant that aims to replicate what those millions of trees do: suck carbon dioxide out of the air.
The plant was built by Carbon Engineering, a pioneer in the technology known as direct air capture (DAC). In a long, squat building, a huge ceiling fan draws air inside, where it reacts with a liquid chemical that grabs hold of CO molecules. This sorbent” flows into a nearby machine that transforms the gas, which is then stored in pressurized tanks. The goal is to help rid the atmosphere of its most ubiquitous climate change culprit. The Squamish plant will process up to 1,000 metric tons of CO2 annually. That's a minuscule drop in the bucket of the planet's annual emissions, an estimated 33 billion metric tons last year, but this plant is only a pilot facility.
If the process can be scaled up massively, what might happen to all the captured CO2? There are several possibilities, CEO Steve Oldham explains. You could, for example, sell some of it to companies like soda makers or concrete manufacturers. You could also convert it into liquid fuel to burn in cars, trucks, planes, and power plants. That would release still more CO2, but in Oldham's vision, which involves a vast network of his company's machines, you would simply run that pollution right back through the process. You could do it over and over, he says, allowing a society to burn fossil fuels in perpetuity without adding to global warming. Call it catch and release. Oldham thinks we should all hop on board with this mode of carbon recycling: “We can't wait. We have to get on with decarbonizing now.”
Of course, governments around the world could go much further than catch and release. They could flat-out try to reverse climate change by using direct air capture to grab surplus atmospheric carbon and bury it deep in the Earth-rewinding the Industrial Revolution. Ridding the atmosphere of the billions of tons of so-called legacy carbon we've emitted over the past 150 years wouldn't come cheap. At current prices, nations would have to shell out, collectively, about $5 trillion a year for the rest of the century. But a dire report in August from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that our climate situation could decline so rapidly that we are left with little choice. Policymakers may well decide that removing all that legacy carbon is worth the cost, Oldham argues. “I personally like the analogy of water treatment,” he says. When water was a problem with cholera and typhoid, governments worldwide built a water treatment infrastructure. It's part of what they provide to their citizens. Today we have an air problem, so we need an air-treatment infrastructure.”
Solving climate change with CO2sucking machines? It sounds, at first, like something from a Neal Stephenson sci-fi novel-or a particularly delirious Silicon Valley TED Talk. And for years, indeed, DAC resided in mad-scientist territory. Only a handful of startups worldwide were fiddling with prototypes, and few serious investors were paying attention.
That all changed in 2018, with the release of an earlier IPCC report. The panel warned that if we wanted to keep the planet from warming by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius-the goal of the Paris agreement on mitigating climate change-we'd need to slash atmospheric CO, dramatically. Planting forests would help. Shifting to renewables would be crucial, too. But given humanity's plodding embrace of wind and solar, the IPCC figured we'd have to start pulling carbon directly out of the atmosphere by 2100. A lot of carbon. Ten billion metric tons per year, equal to nearly a third of our current CO, output.
Direct air capture, along with other capture and sequestration schemes-from planting trees to figuring out how to make marine organisms lock up surplus carbon was suddenly hot, perhaps even crucial to our long-term survival. Policymakers and corporations, and even some environmentalists, snapped to attention. By spring 2021, more than 100 of the world's largest companies—including PepsiCo, Alaska Airlines, Colgate-Palmolive, and Wall Street giants like Morgan Stanley-had pledged to get to “net-zero emissions by 2040, and Elon Musk's foundation put up $100 million for the XPrize, a four-year competition to spur development of any tech, including DAC, that results in “negative emissions.
Public money has begun flowing in, too. The federal government and a couple of states have passed tax credits for firms that can pull carbon out of the atmosphere. The infrastructure bill the Senate green-lighted in August contains $11.5 billion for various carbon-capture efforts, including $3.5 billion to build four “regional direct air capture hubs” that the feds hope will create big networks of clean-energy jobs. The Democrats' $3.5 trillion budget blueprint included $150 billion to compensate energy producers that switch to lower-emissions processes—a move favored by the swing vote of Joe Manchin that could include direct air capture. And some Democrats are pushing higher tax credits for Dac in particular. In June, the Department of Energy announced a modest $12 million grant to support, as Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm put it, the “brilliant innovators” developing DAC technologies that can help us avoid the worst effects of climate change. Even a few tech firms, like Stripe and Shopify, have budgeted millions to buy up CO, sequestered by any reasonable means. You've got this enormous momentum, says Erin Burns, executive director of the think tank Carbon18o.
In response, the DAC pioneers are gleefully rushing out new plants. Climeworks, based in Switzerland, is contemplating a facility in the Middle East. New York's Global Thermostat is gearing up to create its first large-scale installation next year in Chile. Oxy Low Carbon Ventures (a division of a the oil giant Occidental) will use Carbon Engineering's technology to build a Texas plant eventually capable of removing up to I million metric tons of atmospheric CO2 per year, 1,000 times the rate of the Squamish facility.
This may all sound like a smart idea, but it grows more complex as you look closely at the world these companies envision. The only viable path to saving the planet, according to the entrepreneurs, is to get fossil fuel companies on board. That's partly because Big Oil has the infrastructure and know-how to build these kinds of facilities at scale and to pipe captured CO2 to locations where it can be permanently sequestered. But it's also because, in the eyes of the Dac inventors, internal combustion will be with us for a while yet. They envision using DAC mostly for catch-and-release over the next few decades: Harvest CO, from the air, convert it into synthetic fuels, burn those fuels, and recapture the CO2. We wouldn't start removing legacy carbon until 2060 or 2070 because only then will DAC, by small improvements, become cheap enough that companies and nations (at today's tax rates, anyway) will be open to paying for it.
Their tech can save us in the long run, the inventors insist. In the meantime, they're looking for help from the government–and from their partners at companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Occidental Petroleum.
2 THE SCIENTISTS WHO SAW OUR PREDICAMENT COMING
The concept of direct carbon removal came about in the late 1990s, as a handful of scientists contemplated a dismal reality: Despite growing awareness that carbon dioxide from human activities was warming the planet, with potentially catastrophic results, humanity seemed in no hurry to stop burning fossil fuels.
One of those scientists was Klaus Lackner, a soft-spoken theoretical physicist who had grown interested in climate engineering. We met at his lab at Arizona State University, where his grad students were tinkering with a tiny wind tunnel, blowing air over Lackner's CO2-sucking materials to try to eke more performance out of them. His team is still in its early experimental days, he tells me; the researchers are not entirely confident DAC will be viable at a huge scale. “I'm not promising anything,” he says. “All I really promise you is if we fail to make an attempt to make direct air capture work, life is a lot harder.
A tall and lanky German immigrant, Lackner predicted back in the '90s that fossil fuel emissions would increase dramatically because a rapidly developing China—and global south-would demand the same opportunities for inexpensive growth that other nations had enjoyed. Back then, solar and wind power couldn't compete with fossil fuels on cost.
With emissions poised to explode, Lackner figured the only way to manage the problem was to suck them up again. In 1999, he co-authored a paper for a conference on “coal utilization and fuel systems, calling for the development of DAC technology. “My concern was that we are going to have pretty excuses why we can have a little more CO, in the atmosphere-unless we have a cheap solution to get it back,” he recalls. He envisioned a certification system: If a company wanted to release a ton of CO2, it would have to prove it had already removed a ton. “If you want to extract fossil carbon, be my guest,” Lackner told me. “But you have to show me that an equal amount of carbon has been put away.
He traveled the world over the next few years, talking up his idea, and found two other scientists thinking along similar lines. One was Peter Eisenberger, an old friend and fellow physicist who ran the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Back in the '7os and '8os, as the head of Exxon's R&D lab, Eisenberger had toyed with the notion of harvesting CO, from the air-he called it “artificial photosynthesis. The other kindred spirit was David Keith, a Harvard physicist who'd been researching solar geoengineering, a way to curb warming by limiting the amount of sunlight that strikes the Earth. All three men would ultimately launch companies to develop DAC.
Keith was first to pull it off. In 2004, he formed a research group at the University of Calgary and dove into the chemistry. Capturing CO, was not a new art; designers of submarines and spacecraft had been doing it for decades to keep the air on board breathable. Fossil fuel companies, too, had devised scrubber systems to capture the CO, from smokestacks, though these were never deployed at scale-possibly because the firms considered them too expensive. Sorbent chemicals that could sequester CO, at various temperatures were available. The difficulty is that CO, is very dilute in everyday air-about 0.04 percent. Any DAC system would have to move huge volumes of air to grab a relatively small amount of carbon. Still, it seemed doable: The more that we looked into this from an academic perspective, the more we found there's no scientific showstopper here, says Geoff Holmes, a member of Keith's original research group who is now Carbon Engineering's director of business development. One big challenge involved engineering and design: Do you make millions of small devices and scatter them all over the world or build a smaller number of giant plants? Can you power these plants with renewable energy, or with a sufficiently small amount of fossil fuels that they will scoop up far more carbon than they release?
Keith's group chose to go big, designing plants that might capture a million metric tons of CO, or more annually-roughly equivalent to the emissions of 217,000 cars. Another cost-saving decision his group made at the outset: They would work only with existing off-the-shelf parts and technologies. For example, they would expose their sorbents to outside air using the same kinds of cooling towers deployed by factories worldwide. To purify the captured CO2, they repurposed tech from wastewater treatment and mining sectors. The final step in Carbon Engineering's process involves temperatures of up to 900 degrees Celsius-energy intensive-so they designed a plant that could run on either renewables or natural gas. If gas, the resulting emissions could be trapped and fed through the very process they were enabling.
Keith and his partners officially launched Carbon Engineering in 2009 with $3.5 million in seed money from the likes of Bill Gates and Murray Edwards, a Canadian billionaire who made his money extracting dirty crude from Alberta's tar sands. Another $3 million came later from government sources. By 2015, the group was encouraged enough by its lab results to build the Squamish prototype.
Mastering direct air capture, Holmes told me, was a mission of thousands of tiny tweaks. There was “no single lightbulb, he says. “Nobody ran out of the lab and said, 'Yeah, 1 solved it!' It seemed to him the DAC learning curve was akin to that of solar panels, which after decades of incremental improvements—may be a 2 percent better yield each year—are now the world's cheapest energy source to build and install.
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