Technology

Making gasoline from air

 By Michelle Leslie

It is a critical climate-changing greenhouse gas that traps heat inside the earth and is a major contributor to sea ice melt, ocean acidification and global temperature increases…

Carbon dioxide

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the amount of carbon dioxide entering our atmosphere has been increasing at an alarming pace with no signs of slowing down. Reducing the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere is a pressing challenge for nations that signed onto the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015. This is further stressed when coupled with an increased demand for resources brought about by a growing population and the industrialization of developing countries.
But what if we could capture the CO2 in our atmosphere and create fuel from it? A team of researchers and innovators at Carbon Engineering are working to do just that – to create clean fuels using only air, water and renewable power.

Sucking out CO2

A pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia, about an hour’s drive north of Vancouver, recently made headlines for their work into sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere. Since 2015, Carbon Engineering (CE) has been capturing carbon dioxide, and this past December they started creating renewable fuels from atmospheric CO2 thanks to a partnership with California-based company Greyrock. “We looked at the carbon intensity and the environmental benefits of converting flare gas to fuels. You get a very low carbon intensity number compared to fuels but you do get a very significant reduction in GHG emissions,” said Robert Schuetzle, chief executive officer of Greyrock. “[It’s] similar with CO2 from atmosphere. Taking carbon dioxide out [of the atmosphere] and using hydrogen, you can create renewable fuels and displace oil use.”

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Carbon Engineering's equipment capturing carbon from the air at a test plant in Squamish, British Columbia (wired.com)

Offsetting the carbon emissions of transportation systems worldwide could have a tremendous impact on mitigating climate change. As reported by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, transportation accounts for close to one-third of all global emissions, stressing the need for a clean and carbon-neutral transportation network.
Carbon Engineering’s technology is something known as Direct Air Capture (DAC). DAC works by sucking CO2 from the air and purifying it using water and energy. The purification takes place through a series of processes that are similar to the pulp and paper industry where captured CO2 is scrubbed and purified.
The science behind the technology includes purifying the captured carbon dioxide through electrolysis, i.e., splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms using electricity. In the case of CE, the electricity comes from a renewable energy source. From there, the CO2 combines with hydrogen atoms to produce syngas or synthesis gas. (Syngas is a mixture of gases, usually hydrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.) Carbon Engineering, transforms this syngas into hydrocarbons (the key components in petroleum and natural gas) through a combination of heat and renewable electricity.
Nearly one-quarter of all global CO2 emissions come from transportation systems. Carbon Engineering is able to suck out enough carbon dioxide caught in the atmosphere to displace the emissions from approximately 250,000 vehicles, equivalent to one million tons of CO2, creating the potential to decarbonize transportation systems worldwide.
“Greyrock’s synthetic fuels are premium products that can improve the lifetime of automotive engines, reduce the emissions of particulate and nitrogen oxide emissions and improve overall vehicle fuel economy,” said Schuetzle. “Additionally, the blending of Greyrock synthetic fuels into petroleum fuels yields important improvements in both automotive performance and environmental impact; all without any changes in existing mobility infrastructure.”

Carbon Engineering's "air to fuels" technology

Innovating CO2

Carbon Engineering isn’t alone in its carbon capture innovations. Global Thermostat (GT) is also working on creating capital from the carbon market which has an estimated value of over $1 trillion annually. GT co-founders Peter Eisenberger and Dr. Graciela Chichilnisky are the scientists and inventors behind GT. Dr. Chichilnisky has worked on the climate-change problem for years, designing and writing the carbon market for the United Nation’s Kyoto Protocol. 
The innovation behind GT’s air capture allows for retrofitting an existing facility, working with current infrastructure needs. “We can remove CO2 from power plants (from the flue) and from the air,” said Jaclyn Rheins, director of marketing for Global Thermostat. A visiting professor at Stanford University and a professor at Columbia University, Dr. Chichilnisky and her GT co-founder Peter Eisenberger have found that their technology can go beyond reducing carbon emissions at existing facilities; it can create a negative carbon footprint for renewable energy plants.
The modular nature of Global Thermostat’s technology allows for facilities to be shipped in containers anywhere in the world in a matter of weeks.
Swiss-based Climeworks has also been working on direct-air-capture technology and has opened the world’s first commercial plant in Switzerland, with a second plant in operation in Iceland.
Climeworks has big goals for CO2 removal, with plans to extract over 300 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere within the next six years.
“We are looking forward to helping more companies become carbon neutral through our solution, bringing us closer to our goal of capturing 1 percent of global emissions by 2025,” according to the Climeworks website.

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Carbon Engineering's technology known as Direct Air Capture (DAC). DAC works by sucking CO2 from the air and purifying it using water and energy (climeworks.com).

Cost reduction

While carbon capture has made headlines recently, the technology goes back decades. However, in the past, cost was a limiting factor for carbon removal technologies.
According to a 2011 report by the American Physical Society on direct air capture of CO2 using chemicals, cost estimates were $600 million for every metric ton of CO2 removed, making it an unaffordable option.
However, prohibitive costs are being negated by new technology. Carbon Engineering founder and Harvard professor David Keith described the cost of capturing carbon dioxide in the magazine Joule. At a price point that sits just under $100 per ton of carbon dioxide removed it’s an affordable and environmentally friendly way to look at the future of CO2.
The team at Global Thermostat has estimated they can extract CO2 at an estimated cost of $60 per ton, the lowest in the industry.
A Greyrock gas-to-liquids (GTL) plant is currently under construction in Alberta, Canada, and is expected to be operational by 2019. Global Thermostat has two facilities in California and is constructing a commercial plant in Alabama, with patents pending across 147 nations.
Removing harmful CO2 from the atmosphere can help clean up a lingering greenhouse gas while offsetting the need for additional fossil fuel generation. With more competitive costs, carbon displacement could drive future transportation systems globally, with environmental and economic benefits going forward.

READ MORE: Converting CO2 to rock by RP Siegel

about the author
Michelle Leslie
Alberta, Toronto and now Ottawa. Meteorologist, Journalist & Munk School Of Global Affairs Fellow.