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Carbon Engineering: New Technology Slashes Cost of Gasoline from Air

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Energy & Environment
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A Canadian company is en route to developing a marketable – and cheap – way to produce carbon-negative gasoline.

Carbon Engineering, based in Squamish, BC, demonstrated in December that it had succeeded in synthesizing a mixture of gas and diesel using only carbon it had captured from the air. The hydrogen for the process was split from water using electrolysis produced with renewable energy.

But this month it did one better: using what is called direct air capture technology (DAC), the company reportedly has figured out how to slash the cost of capturing carbon from the air that it has used in synthesizing fuel.

The results of the research were published online on Thursday in Joule, a scientific publication that focuses on sustainable energy as a peer-reviewed article. David Keith, a Harvard University professor and founder of Carbon Engineering, led the investigations to find a “a scalable and cost-effective solution for removing CO₂ from the atmosphere.”

The data, say the team “prove[s] that CO2 can now be captured from the atmosphere for less than $100 USD a ton.” Previous cost estimates for that technology placed it out of reach at about $600 a ton.

But that exorbitant cost, quoted by Princeton University mechanical engineer Robert Socolow, was based on technology that is now considered ineffective. According to a report co-chaired by Socolow and BP chemist Michael Desmond in 2011, building a unit that could offset the emissions of a 1,000 kWh power plant “would require 30 kilometers of equipment” to operate.

Keith’s technology is designed to convert CO2 in the atmosphere to fuel. The Air to Fuel technology, which the company has been developing since 2009, uses giant fans and other mechanics to “scrub” the CO₂ from the air and produce fuel sources from the carbon, in the same way that fossil fuel carbon is converted to gasoline. It then returns the scrubbed air to the atmosphere.

“[Carbon Engineering's] vision is to reduce the effects of climate change by first cutting emissions, then by reducing atmospheric CO₂,” explained the company's CEO Steve Oldham, who said the fuel is “fully compatible” with existing engines and provides the commercial sector with the advantages of reducing carbon emissions.

Still, the company has a ways to go to convince buyers to support the new product. The authors admit in their report that “the feasibility of DAC has been disputed” and at times, lumped in with other technological ideas for addressing climate change that seem illogical or too expensive.

That is in part, say the authors, “because publications have not provided sufficient engineering detail to allow independent evaluation of costs.”

“This isn’t going to save the world from the impacts of climate change,” Keith told the BBC, but it is another significant step in advancing DAC technology. What began in the 1990s by a Columbia University theoretical physicist as an effort to mimic the tree’s resourceful use of carbon, is now a tangible reality that may soon offer another alternative to fuels made from the earth’s priciest reserve of carbon.

Flickr image: Benny Mazur

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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