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Clean Transport

Published on June 8th, 2018 | by Tina Casey


Carbon Engineering Pinpoints “Easy” Way To Decarbonize Transportation (CT Exclusive Interview)

June 8th, 2018 by  

The devil is in the details, but the company Carbon Engineering is on a mission to decarbonize the global transportation sector, and it’s pretty sure it has hit on a low cost, scalable system to do just that. Simply replace fossil fuels with a synthetic fuel based on carbon captured from the air, and Bob’s your uncle.

Carbon Engineering CEO Steve Oldham graciously spent some time on the phone with CleanTechnica yesterday to explain why those details may not be so devilish after all, and the interview follows (edited for clarity and flow).

Low Cost Carbon Capture? Sure, Why Not!

If you’ve been hearing a lot about the company in the past couple of days, that’s because yesterday it announced that a paper describing its system has been published in the journal Joule, under the title “A Process for Capturing Co2 from the Atmosphere.

The basis for the plan really is simple. Modern chemistry gives us the ability to combine carbon and hydrogen in all sorts of ways to make all sorts of products, including synthetic gasoline.

The problem in terms of sustainability is harvesting the carbon and the hydrogen without running into a sea of environmental impacts.

The Carbon Engineering solution is to capture carbon from ambient air. That leaves the hydrogen problem.

Until recently hydrogen would have been a deal breaker, because the primary source of hydrogen is fossil gas. The advent of low cost renewable energy is making that problem go away, though. Hydrogen can be “split” from water using an electrical current (provided by renewable energy, of course), or it can be derived from biogas and other sustainable sources.

Who’s Gonna Pay For All This?

That brings us to the biggest problem addressed by Carbon Engineering, which is the difficulty in getting investors to pay for systems that remove carbon from the air.

Here in the US we’ve had our share of problems with carbon capture and sequestration — FutureGen comes to mind — so the issue of investor interest really gets to the nut of the problem.

So, let’s have Mr. Oldham take over:

There are two fundamental benefits in our model. First, we need negative carbon emissions if we are to reach climate goals.

Second, achieving negative emissions is hard. We feel we have a system that makes it happen.

If you believe we need negative emissions, this [the Carbon Engineering study] is big news.

But, nobody is paying for negative emissions. So the question is, what can we do with the carbon dioxide we capture now? The answer is zero emission fuel.

Now you have carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, you convert it to fuel, and you can make the whole transportation sector carbon neutral just by changing the fuel.

New Idea, Old Infrastructure

So far, so good: the fuel adds something that is missing from conventional CCS, namely, a product that can be sold to offset the cost of the system and maybe even turn a profit along the way.

Now you’ve got to consider the cost of shunting your product through to the consumer end. Here’s Oldham again, describing how his company will deploy a global licensing system:

We set up a business model to bring fuel to the market quickly.

Refiners already take fuel from fossil or biofuel companies and distribute it. So, we will partner with air-to-fuel companies. They will build the facilities and sell the product to refiners.

We are no longer in a situation where Country A has oil, Country B does not. We are available to partner world wide. Really there is no limitation on how fast we can grow.

How Does This Thing Work?

As for the system itself, you can read all about it in Joule. Oldham also provided CleanTechnica readers with this plain language version:

Part of it looks a lot like a typical cooling tower. We start with a membrane and a filter. We suck air across the membrane that captures carbon dioxide in a chemical.

That drips to the bottom of the tower, where it is converted to sand-like pellets. We recycle the chemical, so the front end is a continuous process of recycling and gravity.

The pellets go to a calciner [an industrial furnace], which makes carbon dioxide gas. Then it is combined with hydrogen.

The process uses existing technology solutions to make fuel. The innovating is in designing the system from step one all the way through.

If you require new technology the costs go up. In our system, all of the elements are in use today.

The whole point is to make it easy for transportation to be carbon neutral.

Tidying Up The Loose Energy Ends

If you caught that thing about the calciner you’re on to something. Though the system leverages carbon-free gravity, the industrial furnace and other elements require energy.

According to Oldham, the idea is to co-locate the facilities with renewable energy facilities. In particular, the system would provide wind and solar farms with a productive way to use excess energy on site, rather than transmitting it long distances or storing it in batteries.

In other words, the whole thing operates like a hyper-distributed system for storing excess wind and solar energy.

As for the hydrogen, Oldham emphasized that would have to be derived from renewable sources using renewable energy. Otherwise, the system would not be emission-neutral, let alone emission-negative.

Low Cost Decarbonization for Transportation

EV and FCEV fans, are you having heart attacks yet? No worries! The Carbon Engineering model is aimed squarely at achieving big results within the smallest possible time span, leveraging existing technology from A to Z including the vehicles into which the fuel will be pumped.

Over the long run, the death of fossil fuel mobility is leaving plenty of room for tailoring innovative new solutions for local needs and conditions.

Meanwhile, let’s take a look at some of the numbers Carbon Engineering is looking at. In an email to CleanTechnica, the company laid it all out:

Carbon removal is increasingly emerging as central to debate about climate policy. Until now, research suggested it would cost $600USD per ton to remove CO₂ from the atmosphere using DAC technology, making it too expensive to be a feasible solution to removing legacy carbon at scale. This research is significant because it proves that DAC can achieve costs below $100USD per ton of CO₂.

Do tell! The company has been hammering away at the system since 2009, and a pilot plant built in 2015 has stepped things up with fuel production beginning last year.

The next step is commercialization. Oldham wasn’t giving anything away to CleanTechnica in terms of who might be interested, but our friends over at The Atlantic note that Bill Gates is a backer of the company so there’s that.

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Photo (screenshot): via CE.




About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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