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05 Sep 2019

Turning Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel

In order to deal with climate change, corporate greed and political inertia, a multitude of new energy solutions are required. While renewable solar and wind power is an important piece of the puzzle, scientists are also developing clever ways to capture existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into usable fuel. This transformative process almost sounds too good to be true, with “direct air capture” technology able to clean up the environment and produce eco-friendly liquid fuel at the same time.

Also known as carbon sequestration, this technology may become integral in dealing with the accumulation of greenhouse gases. Not only does it produce usable fuel for existing vehicles, it has a carbon negative impact on the environment by pulling existing CO2 from the air. Researchers from Canadian clean energy company Carbon Engineering recently carried out a study in partnership with Harvard, with the results published in the scientific journal Joule in 2018. According to their calculations, one metric ton of CO2 can be removed from the atmosphere for as little as $94.

Carbon sequestration has been known for a long time, but was thought to be prohibitively expensive until recently. According to David Keith, Harvard Professor and founder of Carbon Energy, “Until now, research suggested it would cost $600 per ton to remove CO2 from the atmosphere using DAC technology, making it too expensive to be a feasible solution to removing legacy carbon at scale.” Reducing the cost changes everything, with governments and corporations likely to get on-board if and when carbon negative targets become the new reality.

Much more than a pipe dream, this "direct air capture" technique has been removing CO2 from the atmosphere since 2015. While current operational capacity is limited to a small plant in British Columbia, the team at Carbon Engineering will be ready to start industrial-scale operations by 2021. With the phrase "climate change emergency" now in common use, and more nations shifting towards carbon-neutral targets, this technology could become an important part of the new energy paradigm, especially during the transition period to renewables. 

Essentially, this technology means you can recycle your fuel just like you recycle your milk bottles. When the carbon dioxide is combined with hydrogen and water, it is chemically identical to standard fuels but without the associated pollution of the fossil fuel industry. While thousands of plants would need to be developed around the world to perform this miracle, amazingly, no-one would need to invest in a new vehicle. Cars and trucks account for 20% of all CO2 pollution, with this technology providing fuel for all existing vehicles with no modifications required.

Because CO2 is uniformly distributed across the world, the plants could be installed absolutely anywhere. While the plants themselves require energy to run, the amount of power required is getting smaller all the time. The current plant is actually carbon neutral because it uses renewable hydro energy on-site to help power the transformation process. According to Mr Keith, “This isn’t going to save the world from the impacts of climate change, but it’s going to be a big step on the path to a low-carbon economy.”