Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The implications of demonstrating the economic removal of carbon dioxide from air

By Christophe Jospe

I had the pleasure of attending Carbon Engineering’s pilot plant opening on Friday, October 9 in Squamish, British Columbia. Founded in 2009, Carbon Engineering is one of the pioneering companies that is seeking to disrupt the status quo by sourcing carbon dioxide (CO2) from air.

For me, the opening was grounded in three convictions:

  • Their process is feasible and makes economic sense
  • Air capture (technologically removing CO­2 from air) is a crucial technology to get to a carbon neutral future and beyond; and
  • The world is starting to wake up to the fact that we cannot continue to treat the atmosphere as a dump for fossil based CO2, and there will be more policies and incentives to reflect that reality.

IMG_0835Above: Carbon Engineering’s completed pilot plant in the mountains of British Columbia is now capturing carbon from the atmosphere.

Beyond making headlines in several newspapers, here, here, here, here and here, there are several implications to a fully-functioning pilot demonstration plant.

1. There is a greater understanding of what to do with CO2 once it’s been captured.

Carbon Engineering’s technology makes pure CO2 that can be turned into liquid synthetic fuels using a process (Fischer-Tropsch) that has been well understood for almost 100 years. CO2 is a necessary feedstock to make methanol (which can also be converted into gasoline), and when that CO­2 comes from the air, the fuel can be carbon neutral.

This is but one of the many applications  for recycling CO2 from air, but ultimately it shows a path to an evolution of existing infrastructure in the transportation sector. This isn’t to take away from the many advanced non-carbon fuel innovations occurring in the battery technology and energy storage field. Through finding ways of harnessing the high energy density of liquid hydrocarbons while dealing with the problem of introducing new CO2 into the atmosphere gives insight into what a sustainable future for that sector may look like.

2. There are crucial data generated that can point toward more accurate cost assessments and optimization opportunities.

Not only can demonstration plants deconstruct inaccurate and unhelpful cost assessments – such as a report from 2011 by the American Physical Society that claimed that a first of a kind air capture plant could not possibly be done for less than $600/ton – but can use pilot scale data to predict future costs at commercial scale. Further, it is only through learning-by-doing that it is possible to reduce costs and identify the science and engineering needed to optimize this process.

3. Funding agencies can better understand how to support research & development.

R&D can go much further when it is informed by demonstrations that prove feasibility. Along with cost assessments and optimization opportunities it poses further practical research questions that allow investment that has now become de-risked (by a technology that has proven its feasibility) to be further de-risked from sources of funding that may have not until now believed that such a feat was possible. With bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calling for increased funding and attention to solutions for a low carbon future, demonstration plants such as this are critical.

4. Air capture demonstration sites can work together to accelerate and launch the new industry past the technology valley of death.

As the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions scales up its own air capture units for public demonstration, we welcome the opportunity to work in concert with Carbon Engineering and other air capture companies to unify approaches for techno-economic and life cycle assessments and drive forward research and innovations in the underlying science and technology. While there are differences in each of our approaches to remove CO2 from air, there is a strong advantage to speaking the same language for analysts, policy-makers, investors, and the public to understand the various iterations of large scale deployment of technologies to remove CO2 from air.

5. There is greater clarity on commercialization pathways.

As Carbon Engineering scopes out their plans to build a plants capable of removing 50-100,000 tons of CO­2/year on the commercial scale, investors can better understand the risks, material costs, and opportunities for deploying air capture units. Carbon Engineering’s approach provides an added advantage by engaging or adapting processes that are already understood; for example, part of their process replicates what is used in paper mills. As came up during a panel I moderated during Climate Week NYC (audio link to 2 hour event here “The Case for Removing CO­2 from air”) there are several commercial pathways that exist, today. Only through demonstration projects can such pathways be fully realized.

6. Policy-makers can see that this is no longer just a science project, thereby innovating policies to enable technological transformation.

Politicians who are compelled to act on climate change are able to see air capture demonstration sites with an understanding of the role that this technology might have to play in achieving goals set out to reducing, and ultimately negating, carbon emissions. The classic “chicken and egg” conundrum becomes less of a challenge: a policy cannot support a technology that doesn’t exist, and a technology cannot prove that it works unless it has support. Now the policy challenge is to ensure that innovative standards, such as California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standards not only are able to incentivize the production of non-fossil based hydrocarbons, but widely are replicated across states and municipalities who are able to act more quickly than the federal government. Ultimately, as Carbon Engineering founder David Keith put it, “the biggest risk to this technology is that governments don’t make it illegal to use the atmosphere as a place to dump waste.”

The advent of demonstration plants heralds a new age for air capture, but there’s still a long way for the industry and the field of carbon dioxide removal to go. Air capture sits within a wider emerging network of proposed carbon removal activities, from forestry to enhanced weathering, which itself sits within the wider ecosystem of mitigating, adapting to, and eventually recovering and restoring from climate change and ocean acidification. These efforts can only work if they go hand in hand, and the economic, political, social and environmental ramifications are just as important to consider as are the scientific questions.

But industrial air capture systems do look like they may provide something different as future pathways to sustainability for industries – from food to fuel to fibers – that are inherently carbon-based. Industrial technologies that can mimic the ambient CO2-capturing world found in nature may allow opportunities to apply that process in ways that are much more efficient than relying on biomass as your capture medium, and with the right policy environment can hopefully free up biomass for its other main needs: providing food, protecting biodiversity, and keeping the balance with many of the planet’s other life support systems.


This VEC guest blog complies with our guest blogging rules

Christophe Jospe is the chief strategist for the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions (CNCE) at the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment of the Ira. A Fulton Schools of Engineering, Arizona State University (ASU).

Jospe received his B.A. from Colgate University in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies in 2008 and worked for five years in various capacities in civil society organizations devoted to transformational change before attending Columbia University where he received an MPA in Environmental Science and Policy from the School of International and Public Affairs. While at Columbia, he worked as communications associate at the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy with Prof. Klaus Lackner. Ever since, he has been on a ridiculously fast learning curve to bridge the technological, scientific, economic, and political nexus of air capture technologies to advance the development of this climate solution. In August, 2014 he moved with Lackner and Wright to establish CNCE at ASU.

Jospe is leading the business development and communications efforts of CNCE. He is actively engaging and enabling various stakeholders committed to deploying technologies that can remove, use and sequester carbon dioxide from air.

Check out for more information.