Technology

CO2 capture: a possible mission

 By Luca Longo

“Houston, we have a problem”. We all remember the words of John Swigert in April 1970 while aboard Apollo 13 – either first-hand or from the eponymous movie starring Tom Hanks. The service module had just blown up on the craft, which was supposed to carry Swigert and his fellow astronauts James Lovell and Fred Haise to the moon…

To get back to earth, the three spacemen had to deal with a ton of surprises and solve a lot of problems. One of the most serious was getting the system working for removing carbon dioxide from the air in the lunar module, which was their lifeboat back home. We have a similar but much bigger problem down on earth now. The CO2 building up here is not coming from all 7.5 billion of us breathing, though. It is coming from the use of fuel that we use to keep ourselves warm, to travel and build all the things we need. Scientific authorities the world over have recognised that the excess of CO2 in the atmosphere is the main cause of climate change. That is why research centres worldwide are developing systems for trapping it. We have already described the carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology that allows us to trap CO2 in one place permanently. And we have written about the technology known as carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) that transforms CO2 into useful material. But some people want to capture this greenhouse gas directly from the atmosphere.

CO2 WANTED

The best-known method is to take advantage of CO2’s acidic properties and make it react with a base. Molecules of CO2 can be made to react with lithium hydroxide (LiOH) to create lithium carbonate (Li2CO3), as they were on the Apollo 13 mission. CO2 is thus fixed chemically, producing a solid salt that remains trapped in the filter. It can be released by using heat treatment to regenerate the filter. This is what the astronauts did to remove it from their spacecraft.

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Diagram of the additional carbon dioxide removal system built during the re-entry phase of Apollo 13 (NASA)

The same reaction mechanism for filtering space shuttles is still used on the Russian Soyuz vessels, but with metal oxides and potassium hydroxide (KOH). Lots of research centres are currently working on how to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The main methods can be divided into two major classes. The first is physical absorption, which involves temporarily trapping CO2 molecules in porous structures like zeolites, activated carbon and microscopic organometallic sponges. The second is chemical absorption, in which the CO2 actually bonds with a suitable substrate. In both cases, heat treatment is used to gather concentrated CO2, restoring the active matrix for a new capturing process. Although there is too much CO2 in the atmosphere, the actual amount is very little, or rather it is extremely diluted. The current ratio of 400 parts per million means that just 0.04% of air is CO2. And a good thing too, because if it went over 0.2% we would have trouble breathing.

The CO2 quantity paradox

Unfortunately, this low concentration is the main obstacle to capturing CO2 directly from the air. In order to get one litre of CO2 through chemical or physical filters, you need to put 2,500 litres of air through the filter. This is why no proper industrial plants have been set up for the purpose and research still takes the form of laboratory experiments on a very small scale. In 2011 the American Physical Society estimated in a study that the costs of removing just one tonne of CO2 from the air would be 530 euros. According to projects currently in the assessment phase, these costs will start at 900 euros per tonne of CO2 trapped before hopefully settling down to 90 euros. They are not in the same league as the costs to capture CO2 directly from chimneys and exhaust pipes, where it makes up 15% of fumes. Water makes up about the same proportion and the remaining 71% is nitrogen, which passes through engines without getting involved in reactions.

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The direct air capture system of Carbon Engineering that sucks CO2 from the atmosphere (Carbon Engineering)

A lot of research into decarbonization therefore focuses not on directly trapping CO2 from air, but on a combined approach. There is no magic formula for stopping climate change. We have to fight it on multiple fronts. First of all, we must promote research, development and the spread of renewable sources. In our transition to a future with clean-energy technologies, we have to exploit fossil fuels in a more efficient way, favouring those that generate less CO2 at parity of energy production, in particular natural gas. At the same time we have to extend the useful life of products, by designing them so that the materials they are made of is easy to recover, recycle and reuse. Finally, we have to protect forests and green areas, because right now the cheapest and most efficient means we have for directly capturing CO2 from the air are something called trees.

READ MORE: Doing as plants do: stealing CO2 by Eniday Staff

about the author
Luca Longo