Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Removing GHGs from the air with industrial hardware?

Making fuels out of thin air without impacting on biomass made the headlines in the UK back in October 2012. Though what developments are going on in this area of work. Could a core part of the technology needed to synthesise fuels from the air also be used to take CO2 out of the air and keep it out?

Back in October 2012, many of us read the news story of the British firm that had created gasoline from thin air using electricity as the main energy input. Despite objections from the process industries community that well known chemistry was used, and that it’s currently very inefficient, it was still an important milestone. They got out there and showed doubters that it can be done.

IMechE Direct Air Capture concept

A future scenario: a solar power plant might not always be able to sell the electricity it generates. But what if a Direct Air Capture system could make use of that stranded energy and take carbon dioxide out of the air? Image courtesy of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

As it happens, 5 of the 11 current Virgin Earth Challenge finalists are working on commercially viable ways of removing CO2 from the atmosphere with process engineering. VEC’s focus on these technologies is not because of this potential to create fuels, but because they could provide ways of economically taking CO2 out of the air and keeping it out.

Nonetheless, as the companies look to develop their respective technologies, many of the groups have business development strategies that aim to use that air-captured CO2 in established markets so they can get a commercial foothold. These markets include using that CO2 in the production of cleaner, more sustainable fuels.

Like the fuel synthesis chemistry, technologies for capturing CO2 from the air have been around for decades, they are used in some chemical industries, as well as on submarines and space ships. The challenge facing them is making the process more energy efficient, and therefore as economically efficient as possible, so that it might make financial sense on a larger scale.

There remain some questions to be answered in order to meet the prize’s tough criteria. But our DAC finalists: Carbon Engineering who were recently featured in the New York TimesClimeworks, a spin-out of ETH Zurich; CoawayGlobal Thermostat who have a pilot plant near San Francisco and Kilimanjaro Energy might be able to get to a winning point in the near future.

In the absence of mature CO2 transport and storage networks, a strong global carbon price, and policies to accommodate the sustainable removal of carbon alongside the cutting of carbon emissions in the first place, nearer-term markets like air-to-fuels might provide valuable footholds for these disruptive environmental solutions. Solutions that might one day help us get closer to meeting global greenhouse gas targets by taking carbon out of the air.