Rethinking Carbon Dioxide (CO2): from a pollutant to a moneymaker
Three startup companies led by prominent scientists are working on new technologies to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. The scientific community is skeptical, but these entrepreneurs believe removing CO2 can eventually be profitable and help cool the planet.
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“I am absolutely sure that’s wrong,” replies Carbon Engineering’s David Keith. In an FAQ on its website, Carbon Engineering offers a “conservative estimate” of the cost of air capture at “less than $250 per ton” of CO2 and says that it will drive costs lower. In his 1999 paper, Lackner estimated the cost of air capture as “on the order of $10 to $15 per ton,” a target that now appears wildly optimistic. This argument about about costs is crucial to the future of air capture, but it is unlikely to be settled until one of the startups begins to build industrial-scale plants.
Costs matter – a lot – because there’s substantial demand for CO2, at prices that can top $100 a ton. Most of it comes from oil companies that want to inject liquefied CO2 into reservoirs to squeeze out stranded oil, a proven technology called enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The US government estimates that state-of-the-art EOR using CO2 could add 89 billion barrels of oil to the recoverable resources of the US. That’s more than four times current proven reserves.
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“The single largest deterrent to expanding production from EOR today is the lack of large volumes of reliable and affordable CO2,” says Tracy Evans, the former president of Denbury Resources, which specializes in enhanced oil recovery.
Each air-capture startup is pursuing its own technology and plant design. Global Thermostat plans to use residual waste heat from power plants to run its machines, while Carbon Engineering is betting on a technology known as “wet scrubbing” in which a water-based solution absorbs CO2 from air that is passed through devices known as air contactors. Each machine will require massive amounts of hardware, and thousands of machines would need to be built to have a meaningful climate impact.
All three startups intend to get their businesses rolling by selling CO2 to the oil industry. Farthest along is Global Thermostat, which has had serious conversations with a Seattle-based energy firm called Summit Power about building a demonstration plant to capture CO2 and extract stranded oil, as part of Summit’s massive, government-backed Texas Clean Energy Project. Liquid CO2 used for EOR would be sequestered underground, offsetting emissions generated when the oil is later burned. By some estimates, oil recovered that way would have roughly half the carbon footprint of conventional petroleum. This oil, the theory goes, could be made into lower-carbon transportation fuels with special appeal to customers – airlines, most obviously – that face regulatory pressure to reduce emissions.
Over time, if costs come down, air capture technology could serve CO2 markets beyond the oil industry. At least two startups have been talking to algae companies that would like to enrich air with CO2 to feed algae to produce biofuels. “Algae is the most efficient creature for making fuels, and it can’t on its own harvest enough CO2 from the atmosphere,” says Ned David of Kilimanjaro, who previously worked at Sapphire Energy, an algae firm. Capturing carbon from the air to feed algae makes possible a carbon-neutral, closed-cycle fuel – that is, one in which the CO2 released when the fuel is burned is offset by the CO2 absorbed when it is produced.