How Capturing CO2 from the Air Can Help Save the Planet

Drilling for oil is not a climate strategy

By Marc Gunther

Republicans aren’t alone in ignoring the climate threat. Visiting an oil pipeline in Cushing, OK, last week, President Obama said:

As long as I’m president, we’re going to keep on encouraging oil development and infrastructure, and we’re going to do it in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people.

He knows that’s impossible. Burning oil releases CO2, driving up the risk of climate change. There’s no way to burn fossil fuels and protect the health and safety of Americans — unless we can find ways to capture CO2 from the air.

As it happens, that’s just what three startup companies – one of them backed by Bill Gates – are trying to do: They want to build thousands of big machines to extract CO2 from the atmosphere. Their technology, for now, is costly. Some scientists say they are wasting their time. But with greenhouse gas emissions still rising, despite all the talk about curbing them, maybe the time has come to think differently about the climate crisis.

My new ebook, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis (Amazon Kindle Single, $1.99), explains why we’ve made so little progress (none, actually) on climate, explores the technology of direct air capture and tells the story of the scientists and wealthy investors who want to clean up the mess created by CO2 pollution.

Kilimanjaro Energy is the industry pioneer. Launched in 2004 by Klaus Lackner, a Columbia University physicist who first wrote about air capture of CO2 in a 1999 paper [PDF, download], the company got started with an $8 million investment from the late Gary Comer, the founder of Land’s End, who grew worried about climate change after he sailed his yacht through the normally ice-bound Northwest Passage.

Two Columbia profs also founded Global Thermostat. (The name suggests that, eventually, we’ll decide what temperature we’d like the earth to be.) Peter Eisenberger, a physicist and former head of research for Exxon who started Columbia’s Earth Institute, and Graciela Chichilnisky, who holds Ph.Ds in economics and math, run the show.  Edgar Bronfman Jr., heir to the Seagram’s fortune, has invested $15 million.

A drawing of an "air contactor" that Carbon Engineering wants to build to pull CO2 out of the air.

Finally, there’s Carbon Engineering, which is backed by Bill Gates and led by David Keith out of Calgary, Alberta, the hub of Canada’s oil industry. Keith divides his time between the company, the University of Calgary and Harvard, and he restores himself by trekking across the frozen Arctic. For him, the climate issue is personal. “I love big wilderness,” he says.

Each firm is pursuing its own technology. Scientists agree that it’s relatively easy to scrub CO2 out of the air using chemicals; that’s how sailors can keep breathing in submarines. That doesn’t mean it’s practical. Cost estimates for air capture of CO2 range from a $10 to $15 a ton, which is almost surely much too low, to $1,000 a ton, which is probably too high. Last year, a committee of the American Physical Society produced a 100-page report, called Direct Air Capture of CO2 with Chemicals, which concluded: “Direct air capture is not currently an economically viable approach to mitigating climate change.” The scientists behind the startups strongly disagree.

Controversy also swirls around the startups because of the way they plan to get their businesses rolling: They want to capture CO2 from the air, turn it into a liquid and pump it into the ground to extract oil. That’s not as crazy as it sounds. If the CO2 is sequestered, the oil that’s developed will, in effect, have a lower climate impact than conventional oil. They’re also talking about using their CO2 to feed algae. “Algae is the most efficient creature for making fuels, and it can’t on its own harvest enough CO2 from the atmosphere,” says Ned David, the CEO of Kilimanjaro.

Eventually, all the companies want to close the carbon cycle. That is, they would like making fuels by combining CO2 sucked from from the air with hydrogen extracted from water. If the process could be powered by solar energy, it could produce renewable, carbon-neutral hydrocarbons for cars, trucks, ships and planes. That’s a long way off, all concede.

Meantime, direct air capture could reframe the political debate about fossil fuels and climate. The climate problem, after all, isn’t  caused by fossil fuels per se, but by the CO2 waste they generate. If CO2 capture becomes practical, coal, oil and natural gas companies could simply be required to clean up the mess they make.

Marc Gunther writes about business and the environment for FORTUNE, GreenBiz, the Sustainable Business Forum and on his blog, His ebook, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis, can be read in about an hour to read and costs $1.99.

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3 responses

  1. Puh-leeze.

    “If the CO2 is sequestered, the oil that’s developed will, in effect, have a lower climate impact than conventional oil.”

    Technically so. But not enough lower climate impact to balance the carbon cycle – not even close.

    It might help the discourse to mention that CO2, at just under 400 parts per million currently, equals something like %0.04 of the atmosphere.  

    That’s what the CCS process would have to extract – part of a very tiny (if terribly dangerous), component of the atmosphere.  This is an important piece of the context for understanding why economical CO2 capture and storage from air remains a pipe dream – a tantalizing distraction.

    “Direct air capture is not currently an economically viable approach to mitigating climate change.”

    Exactly, and thanks for citing this report.Compared to industrial CCS, paying for the ongoing biological sequestration services of intact ecosystems is, and will probably long remain, a tremendous bargain.Ditto for simply reducing the consumption of fossil fuels.

  2. I thought it was vegetation (trees algae etc) that was sucking CO2 out of air.Chemical treatment to remove emissions sounds like more trouble than it is worth

  3. It is worth noting that CO2 once available in concentrated form can be reacted with hydrogen over copper catalysts to form methanol CH3OH (Lurgi process) which can easily be converted to gasoline via the already industrialized MTG (methanol to gasoline) process.   Production of Methane (CH4 or synthetic natural gas) via the Sabatier reaction is also possible.

    In both cases hydrogen could be supplied via electrolysis.   The German ZSW (Zentrum fur Wasserstoff und Solarenergie) estimated the process as between 38% to 60%.  They have built laboratory scale plants at about 40% efficiency using a relatively inefficient process involving sodium hydroxide as a sorbent and electrolysis (salt spiting to recover the CO2 and sorbent)

    Large scale production of such renewable and CO2 neutral hydrocarbon fuels would also decouple solar and wind energy from their reliability problems.

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