A new carbon capture process to make fuel at an industrial plant brings the cost down to between $94 and $232 per ton compared to previous estimates of $600 per ton. The technology could help drive a market for low-carbon synthetic fuels.
Led by Harvard professor of applied physics David Keith and described in the peer-reviewed research journal Joule, the findings are based on three years of carbon capture research at a pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia. The plant is operated by Keith’s clean energy company Carbon Engineering (CE).
CE employs technology known as direct air capture or DAC, which uses giant banks of fans to blow air through a solution that contains a carbon dioxide-capturing chemical, Science Magazine’s Robert F. Service explains. Once the carbon dioxide is captured in solution, CE’s plant transfers it into a solid, which when heated releases it in a pure gas stream, Service continues. Captured CO2 can be turned into liquid fuels and the chemical used to capture CO2 gets recycled.
“Until now, research suggested it would cost $600 USD 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,” Keith said. “We now have the data and engineering to prove that DAC can achieve costs below $100 USD per ton.”
Carbon Engineering’s CEO Steve Oldham told Science Magazine that CO2 captured at the low end of the per-ton cost range produces synthetic fuels that cost about $1 per liter. As Service points out, that’s more expensive than much of the fuel out there today, but close enough to potentially drive a market for DAC plants, making low-carbon synthetic fuels a reality in places like California that incentivize them.
“Direct air capture technology offers a highly-scalable pathway to removing carbon from the atmosphere,” said Noah Deich, executive director of the Oakland, California-based nonprofit Center for Carbon Removal. “This analysis demonstrates the potential for Carbon Engineering’s technology to fall to a cost that would drive significant investment and corporate adoption in the near future.”
Despite the technology’s promise, Oldham cautioned Service that it’s not a silver bullet for climate change. The company expects there is still a long way to go before the process has effect on a large scale.