In the aftermath of the Paris climate agreement, those wondering how the world is going to seriously reduce and even reverse the flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere may find a key part of the answer taking shape on a rain-soaked parcel of industrial land in Squamish, B.C.
Sandwiched between towering cliffs and a dramatic coastline 50 kilometres north of Vancouver, the site is home to a small pilot plant where engineers are busy pulling CO2 out of the air so it can be stored or turned into a fuel that displaces conventional gasoline.
The idea amounts to a surprisingly simple but potentially game-changing way of getting at the climate problem. Around the world, temperatures and sea levels are rising because we're burning too much carbon. The Squamish project is demonstrating a new way to unburn it.
"I would say we've knocked down the big hurdles," says Adrian Corless, chief executive officer of Carbon Engineering, the Calgary-based company behind the project, as he describes the various technical challenges his team has surmounted. "The things that could have killed us – we're past those now."
There is no magic to removing carbon dioxide from air. It's a feat that is performed routinely on submarines and spacecraft – places where the air supply is limited and occupants would suffocate if CO2 were allowed to build up. But the goal for Mr. Corless and his team is to separate CO2 from air using a method that can be scaled up to make a difference to the global climate system.
The strategy is known as direct air capture, and Carbon Engineering is one of a handful of companies in the world working to make it commercially viable. Since carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is the same everywhere, a direct air capture facility could, in principle, be set up anywhere. The company settled on Squamish for its prototype because the land was available and engineering firms used to dealing with the chemical industry were close at hand.
Of course, one prototype plant won't save the planet, but the facility is attracting global attention because it may prove especially useful for solving a key piece of the world's carbon conundrum: the heavy-transportation sector.
'Not a science project'
In the future, our cars may all run on battery power, and perhaps we'll charge them up with electricity generated from renewable sources of energy. But even in such a world, few expect that trucks, trains, airplanes and ships are going to run that way. Unlike cars, heavy vehicles will still need fuel, such as gasoline or diesel, that is energy-dense and easy to carry.
Today, that fuel accounts for a big slice of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions. Carbon Engineering aims to suck it out of the air rather than the ground. If the idea succeeds, it could divert a major contributor to climate change.
"What we're doing is opening up, in a more serious way, a pathway to synthetic fuels from air," says David Keith, the former University of Calgary physicist who is the company's founder and executive chairman. "That's something that people get excited about."
Dr. Keith, now a faculty member at Harvard University, is better known for his work in geoengineering. As a scientist, he thinks about ways of tinkering with the planet on a grand scale to alleviate the effects of global warming. But the pilot plant in Squamish is "not a science project," he emphasizes. It's taking something that experts all agree is doable, and figuring out how to do it at a cost that is relevant to industry.
The challenge clearly preoccupies the tall, lean physicist – a pragmatist once identified by Time magazine as a "hero of the environment." He has spent more than 25 years grappling with climate change as an intellectual problem, but is most enthusiastic when talking about turning ideas into nuts-and-bolts solutions.
He is not alone in his enthusiasm. Bill Gates, who made headlines in Paris with his Breakthrough Energy Coalition of high-profile entrepreneurs, is Carbon Engineering's largest private investor. Federal dollars have also helped to get the Squamish project up and running over the past year. The plant, which cost $8-million to build, is also the only Canadian finalist for the Virgin Earth award, a $25-million (U.S.) prize set up by Richard Branson to promote the development of sustainable ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
While the business case for the project is currently focused on heavy transportation, the technology that Carbon Engineering has pioneered carries broader implications for the economics of climate change. By vacuuming carbon dioxide out of the air – something the world may need to do in earnest one day, in order to avoid the worst-case scenarios associated with global warming – the plant has effectively put a cost ceiling on what it would take to de-carbonize any industry in the world. If the day comes when companies must clean up the carbon they release, it's to their advantage to find ways of doing it more cheaply than Carbon Engineering can do it for them.
"The simple fact that [the Squamish facility] is there will drive progress forward," says Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University.
Dr. Lackner's research involves looking for ways of removing CO2 using advanced materials that may prove more effective in the long run but are not yet ready for commercial application. Meanwhile, other competitors are developing ways to move into the marketplace. Among the most active is Climeworks of Zurich, which in November announced it will build a facility later this year to capture and supply carbon dioxide to a greenhouse operator to enhance vegetable growth. Another company, Global Thermostat, which operates a demonstration plant in Menlo Park, Calif., is also a pursuing direct air capture.
For Dr. Keith, the fact that others are pushing into the same arena is a positive sign. "It makes the case that this is a real thing," he says.
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
Battling miniature smokestacks
In practice, direct air capture is quite different from the idea of capturing and storing the carbon emitted by power plants, a proposal that comes with its own set of challenges. Compared to power-plant emissions, carbon dioxide in the ambient air is much more diffuse and harder to concentrate. But when global sources are numerous and widely distributed – as they are in the transportation sector, where every tailpipe is a miniature smokestack – direct air capture is one of only two ways of getting the carbon back.
The other is growing plants. The biofuel industry is built around the idea that turning plants into ethanol creates a carbon-neutral fuel cycle. Critics of biofuels say that this ignores all the carbon released during growing and processing, not to mention the fact that all the land required to grow fuel in abundance might be better put to use growing food.
Carbon Engineering is testing the premise that, on a global scale, direct air capture makes more sense. Unlike others trying to do the same, it has deliberately avoided new technologies and chosen to leverage methods borrowed from other industries, linking them in a novel way.
On paper, the method is basic high-school chemistry: The Squamish plant sucks air into a device called a contactor, where it reacts with a chemical solution that absorbs about three-quarters of the air's carbon, by volume. The liquid is then solidified into pellets that are cooked in a high-temperature furnace that releases the carbon again, but as pure CO2.
Construction of the Squamish facility began last spring and the initial steps of the process have been up and running since last summer. The plant has now produced several tonnes of pellets, some of which have been cooked down again. The last step, which makes the process cost-effective, involves recycling the chemicals used in the different reactions.
Once that final loop is closed, Mr. Corless says he expects the plant to capture about 1.5 tonnes of CO2 a day. The key technical goal is running the cycle enough times to get the data needed to optimize the process and move on to building a commercial-scale plant.
For now, the company is releasing the carbon dioxide it captures, but plans, by the end of 2016 to install a small fuel-synthesis operation at the back end of the plant. This facility would combine captured carbon dioxide with hydrogen gas to generate synthetic gasoline.
Dr. Keith estimates the process should be able to generate synthetic fuel for about $1 a litre. This is more than double the wholesale price for gasoline. But as governments intent on reining in climate change impose tougher standards that penalize carbon-intense fuel production, the expectation is that Carbon Engineering's product will increasingly become more competitive, particularly for the kinds of vehicles that can't easily switch to battery power. When that happens, there's no real limit to how much of the transportation sector direct air capture can supply, says Dr. Keith.
"There are some ideas that are green but can never be big," he says, but this "has the potential … to be huge."
Ivan Semeniuk is The Globe and Mail's science reporter.