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The device that reverses CO2 emissions


By Frank Swain11th March 2021

Cooling the planet by filtering excess carbon dioxide out of the air on an industrial scale.

It would require a new, massive global industry – what would it need to work?

The year is 2050. Walk out of the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas, and drive north across the sun-baked scrub where a few remaining oil pumpjacks nod lazily in the heat, and then you'll see it: a glittering palace rising out of the pancake-flat ground. The land here is mirrored: the choppy silver-blue waves of an immense solar array stretch out in all directions. In the distance, they lap at a colossal grey wall five storeys high and almost a kilometre long. Behind the wall, you glimpse the snaking pipes and gantries of a chemical plant.

As you get closer you see the wall is moving, shimmering – it is entirely made up of huge fans whirring in steel boxes. You think to yourself that it looks like a gigantic air conditioning unit, blown up to incredible proportions. In a sense, that's exactly what this is. You're looking at a direct air capture (DAC) plant, one of tens of thousands like it across the globe. Together, they're trying to cool the planet by sucking carbon dioxide out of the air. This Texan landscape was made famous for the billions of barrels of oil pulled out of its depths during the 20th Century. Now the legacy of those fossil fuels – the CO2 in our air – is being pumped back into the emptied reservoirs.
If the world is to meet Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to 1.5C by 2100, sights like this may be necessary by mid-century.

We have a climate change problem and it's caused by an excess of CO2.

With direct air capture, you can remove any emission, anywhere, from any moment in time –

Steve Oldham

But step back for a moment to 2021, to Squamish, British Columbia where, against a bucolic skyline of snowy mountains, the finishing touches are being put to a barn-sized device covered in blue tarpaulin. When it becomes operational in September, Carbon Engineering's prototype direct air capture plant will begin scrubbing a tonne of CO2 from the air every year. It is a small start, and a somewhat larger plant in Texas is in the works, but this is the typical scale of a DAC plant today.

"We have a climate change problem and it's caused by an excess of CO2," says Carbon Engineering chief executive Steve Oldham. "With DAC, you can remove any emission, anywhere, from any moment in time. It's very powerful tool to have."

Most carbon capture focuses on cleaning emissions at the source: scrubbers and filters on smokestacks that prevent harmful gases reaching the atmosphere. But this is impractical for small, numerous point sources like the planet's billion or so automobiles. Nor can it address the CO2 that is already in the air. That's where direct air capture comes in.

The number of things that would have to happen without direct air capture are so stretching and multiple.

It's highly unlikely we can meet the Paris Agreements without it – Ajay Gambhir

If the world wants to avoid catastrophic climate change, switching to a carbon neutral society is not enough. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that limiting global warming to 1.5C by 2100 will require technologies such as DAC for "large-scale deployment of carbon dioxide removal measures" – large-scale meaning many billions of tonnes, or gigatonnes, each year. Elon Musk recently pledged $100m (£72m) to develop carbon capture technologies, while companies such as Microsoft, United Airlines and ExxonMobil are making billion-dollar investments in the field.

"Current models suggest we're going to need to remove 10 gigatonnes of CO2 per year by 2050, and by the end of the century that number needs to double to 20 gigatonnes per year," says Jane Zelikova, a climate scientist at the University of Wyoming. Right now, "we're removing virtually none. We're having to scale from zero."

If we continue with HydroCarbons? I do not think there is any chance….in 10 years….hydro Carbons are on the back slope of a big run of 100 plus years. GJS.

At least we got a good book out of Hydro Carbons, " Killers of the Flower Moon".

Carbon Engineering's pilot plant in British Columbia, is the "cookie cutter" model for much larger DAC plants (Credit: Carbon Engineering)

Carbon Engineering's plant in Squamish is designed as a testbed for different technologies. But the firm is drawing up blueprints for a much larger plant in the oil fields of west Texas, which would fix 1 million tonnes of CO2 annually. "Once one is done, it's a cookie cutter model, you simply build replicas of that plant," says Oldham. Yet he admits the scale of the task ahead is dizzying. "We need to pull 800 gigatonnes out of the atmosphere. It's not going to happen overnight."

One million Tonnes is nothing. A minor league attempt…..We are talking 7 Billion tons in 10 years by raising the OM 2% using Green Play Ammonia critieria on the land and cleaning up water at the same time.

A cultural change for land owners and producers….and we can pay the 400 million acres of landowners $100 per ton of CO2 sequestered into the growing crop, roots and stover to build OM. The producers and landowners marching orders ….raise the OM 2%. Each 1% of OM is 32,000 lbs per acre of Carbon stored. 16 tons of C. not CO2.

Blue-sky thinking

The science of direct air capture is straightforward. There are several ways to do it, but the one that Carbon Engineering's system uses fans to draw air containing 0.04% CO2 (today's atmospheric levels) across a filter drenched in potassium hydroxide solution – a caustic chemical commonly known as potash, used in soapmaking and various other applications. The potash absorbs CO2 from the air, after which the liquid is piped to a second chamber and mixed with calcium hydroxide (builder's lime). The lime seizes hold of the dissolved CO2, producing small flakes of limestone. These limestone flakes are sieved off and heated in a third chamber, called a calciner, until they decompose, giving off pure CO2, which is captured and stored. At each stage, the leftover chemical residues are recycled back in the process, forming a closed reaction that repeats endlessly with no waste materials.

If I understand correctly….rather than sending the limestone into the high heat calciner to build CO2….it would be better to build lime for surface application in Acid Soils in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Also BC and Alberta….this would be a very good tool where quality lime is just not available for Agriculture. .

Lets spread the second stage limestone (Quick Lime I assume) over the land to elevate the soil pH and provide calcium and Carbonate to the soil to improve the soil life. We could bring back the soil to a 7.4 pH as recommended by KSU and the natural pH of Mamals. Pit Run, and low quality Ag Lime cost about $80 per ton in the PNW….why not build lime and pull carbon out of the atmosphere?

Any takers on this process?

Good lime is not easily found economically in the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest in certain locations.

The processor could be located in central part of a trade region…no more than 1 hour out and back. This could solve the acidic soil problem in many locations around the corn belt and the pacific Northwest….we quit mining out of the ground and pull the C, out of the air. The calcium hydroxide is the problem since it is mined from the earth and takes heat to make it. Same with the Potassium Hydroxide…a spend process I believe.

There you have it….$80 a ton for lime in Whitman County Washington….and of the highest quality..….and a big savings in energy staying away from the third step….the calciner takes about 10 Mega Watts per day in a cement plant scenario….at 8 cents a KW that is $800 using electricity. How much does it cost per ton of calcined lime to CO2….that is a lot of money. GJS

This might work…if you can find a good source of Calcium Hydroxide that could be railed in with the Potassium Hydroxide coming to the plant on the same rail link. GJS

We're past the point where reducing emissions needed to take place.

We're locking in our reliance on DAC more and more – Jane Zelikova

With global carbon emissions continuing to rise, the climate target of 1.5C is looking less and less likely without interventions like this.

"The number of things that would have to happen without direct air capture are so stretching and multiple it's highly unlikely we can meet the Paris Agreements without it," says Ajay Gambhir, senior researcher at the Imperial College Grantham Institute for Climate Change and an author of a 2019 paper on the role of DAC in climate mitigation.

The IPCC does present some climate-stabilising models that don't rely on direct air capture, but Gambhir says these are "extremely ambitious" in their assumptions about advances in energy efficiency and people's willingness to change their behaviour.

"We're past the point where reducing emissions needed to take place," says Zelikova. "We're locking in our reliance on DAC more and more."

DAC is far from the only way carbon can be taken out of the atmosphere. Carbon can be removed naturally through land use changes such as restoring peatland, or most popularly, planting forests. But this is slow and would require huge tracts of valuable land – foresting an area the size of the United States, by some estimates, and driving up food prices five-fold in the process. And in the case of trees, the carbon removal effect is limited, as they will eventually die and release their stored carbon, unless they can be felled and burned in a closed system. (Read more about why planting trees doesn’t always help with climate change)

This is not a slow process, We can do it in 10 years by stopping the tillage Going with Green Play Ammonia. , we have the technology and it is Quadruple play….Soil Quality, Stored Soil Carbon, Higher Yields and Less Erosion and ….No-tilling 400 million acres, applying Green Ammonia, No-till, Cover Cropping….and a lot faster than building plants that have no value other than pulling CO2 and filling the vadoze. Green Play Ammonia, Builds Soils, Stores water where it falls, controls Gulf Hypoxia and Great Lakes pollution such as Lake Erie. GJS

The scale of the challenge for carbon removal using technologies like DAC, rather than plants, is no less gargantuan. Gambhir's paper calculates that simply keeping pace with global CO2 emissions – currently 36 gigatonnes per year would mean building in the region of 30,000 large-scale DAC plants, more than three for every coal-fired power station operating in the world today. Each plant would cost up to $500m (£362m) to build – coming in at a cost of up to $15 trillion (£11tn).

There is room for everybody. GJS But this is ridiculous…..Why not just take to take of the natural way.

Climeworks' facility near Zurich, Switzerland, sells the CO2 it captures to nearby vegetable growers for their greenhouses (Credit: Alamy)

Every one of those facilities would need to be stocked with solvent to absorb CO2. Supplying a fleet of DAC plants big enough to capture 10 gigatonnes of CO2 every year will require around four million tonnes of potassium hydroxide, the entire annual global supply of this chemical one and a half times over.

And once those thousands of DAC plants are built, they also need power to run. "If this was a global industry absorbing 10 gigatonnes of CO2 a year, you would be expending 100 exajoules, about a sixth of total global energy," says Gambhir. Most of this energy is needed to heat the calciner to around 800C – too intense for electrical power alone, so each DAC plant would need a gas furnace, and a ready supply of gas. Most likely a Green Ammonia Furnace. But this sets the tone….Gas is forever. GJS

Costing the planet

Estimates of how much it costs to capture a tonne of CO2 from the air vary widely, ranging from $100 to $1,000 (£72 to £720) per tonne. Oldham says that most figures are unduly pessimistic – he is confident that Climate Engineering can fix a tonne of carbon for as little as $94 (£68), especially once it becomes a widespread industrial process.

A bigger issue is figuring out where to send the bill. Incredibly, saving the world turns out to be a pretty hard sell, commercially speaking. Direct air capture does result in one valuable commodity, though: thousands of tonnes of compressed CO2. This can be combined with hydrogen to make synthetic, carbon-neutral fuel. That could then be sold or burned in the gas furnaces of the calciner (where the emissions would be captured and the cycle continue once again). This is the fossil fuel industry solution.

GJS - This is not a viable solution for getting the planet to Net Zero. We can quickly implement No-tillage on 400 million acres and raise the OM 2% and use Green Ammonia to raise the OM fast. In 30 years we could have a disaster with Fossil Fuel people trying to keep up with Green Ammonia Power….It is cheaper than Fossil Fuel….so why not build Ammonia and cap the Oil And Gas Wells as they have in Denmark and Australia. We can capture 7 Billion Tons and raise the OM 2% if we follow our Guidelines of No-tillage, cover cropping and Exactrix 1%CV TAPPKTS at 8 inch depths.

Surprisingly, one of the biggest customers for compressed CO2 is the fossil fuel industry

As oil and gas wells run dry, it's not uncommon to squeeze the remaining oil out of the ground by pressuring the reservoir using steam or gas in a process called enhanced oil recovery. Carbon dioxide is a popular choice for this, and comes with additional benefit of locking that carbon underground, completing the final stage of carbon capture and storage. Occidental Petroleum, which has partnered with Carbon Engineering to build a full-scale DAC plant in Texas, uses 50 million tonnes of CO2 every year in enhanced oil recovery. Each tonne of CO2 used in this way is worth about $225 (£163) in tax credits alone. Tax credits for a process that is way out of the ball game….Somebody got hoodwinked…..that means we save 2.7 tons of carbon per ton of ammonia….that is $607 we can earn if that same accountant is available. GJS

Lets move to renewables as quick as we can….Who wants to run the oil and gas wells dry…..we will save the oil and gas wells for another time…..the 2nd act in 3021. GJS

It's perhaps fitting that the CO2 in our air is eventually being returned underground to the oil fields from whence it came, although maybe ironic that the only way to finance this is in the pursuit of yet more oil. Occidental and others hope that by pumping CO2 into the ground, they can drastically reduce the carbon impact of that oil: a typical enhanced-recovery operation sequesters one tonne of CO2 for every 1.5 tonnes it ultimately releases in fresh oil. So while the process reduces the emissions associated with oil, it doesn't balance the books.

Where is my calculator?. Wait a minute?. How about C going a different direction and not O2 which belongs in the atmosphere. Kick the O2 back to the atmosphere, and take carbon into a different molecule or process that we can use….…build the carbon up as carbon black for tires. Carbon filament for construction of houses. Keep the wood in the forest for now sequestering carbon. GJS. I think this process is going on at Beatrice NE. GJS Somebody talked the government into spending a lot of money on a process that makes no sense….and won’t compete with Green Ammonia.

The fossil fuel people think the planet and the mining claims are their personal toilet of their industrial processes. They wont clean up their mess. The pipelines are still in the ground that are abandoned. The mining of oil and gas is a pretty nasty process and uses a lot of freshwater. The use of freshwater and mining process water is a big deal in western Kansas.GJS

Enhancing the growth of vegetables in greenhouses is one application for the CO2 captured from the air by DAC (Credit: Alamy)

This is true about the Greenhouse….the CO2 needs to be consumed by the crops using No-tillage on 400 million acres in a more natural way… and raising the OM by 2% using No-Tillage Exactrix Green Ammonia and TAPPKTS plus zinc formulation.

This is the Road Sign moment at the Carbon Highway Intersection….Do we go green all the way?….the Light Bulb is coming on!….CO2 is good for Crops and soils. GJS.

"DAC is always going to cost money, and unless you're paid to do it, there is no financial incentive," says Chris Goodall, author of What We Need To Do Now: For A Zero Carbon Future. "Climeworks can sell credits to virtuous people, write contracts with Microsoft and Stripe to take a few hundred tonnes a year out of the atmosphere, but this needs to be scaled up a millionfold, and that requires someone to pay for it.

You can not compete in a scale up….there are better alternatives. GJS

"There are subsidies for electric cars, cheap financing for solar plants, but you don't see these for DAC," says Oldham. "There is so much focus on emission reduction, but there isn't the same degree of focus on the rest of the problem, the volume of CO2 in the atmosphere. The big impediment for DAC is that thinking isn't in policy."

Oldham Policy is use government money, and that’s OK….put let us go first tor the low hanging fruit…..The C is storable in better ways….That is right because there are more powerful alternatives. GJS

Zelikova believes that DAC will follow a similar path to other climate technologies, and become more affordable. "We have well-developed cost curves showing how technology can go down in cost really quickly," says Zelikova. "We surmounted similar hurdles with wind and solar. The biggest thing is to deploy them as much as possible. It's important for government to support commercialisation – it has a role as a first customer, and a customer with very deep pockets."
No government Money until we take care of better alternatives, Mr.Zelikova…There are better and quicker ways to do it. GJS

Goodall advocates for a global carbon tax, which would make it expensive to emit carbon unless offsets were purchased. But he recognises this is still a politically unpalatable option. Nobody wants to pay higher taxes, especially if the externalities of our high-energy lifestyles – increasing wildfires, droughts, floods, sea level rise – are seen as being shouldered by somebody else.

Zelikova adds we also need broader conversation in society about how much these efforts should cost. "There is an enormous cost in climate change, in induced or exacerbated natural disasters. We need to do away with idea that DAC should be cheap." I think this is about his money and not yours and my money? GJS

Risk and reward

Even if we agree to build 30,000 industrial scale DAC plants, find the chemical materials to run them, and the money to pay for it all, we won't be out of the woods yet. In fact, we might end up in a worse position than before, thanks to a phenomenon known as mitigation deterrence.

Facilities in Iceland are among those aiming to mineralise CO2, to lock it out of circulation in the atmosphere as a long-term solution (Credit: Sandra O Snaebjornsdottir)

"If you think DAC is going to be there in the medium- to long-term, you will not do as much near-term emissions reduction," explains Gambhir. "If the scale-up goes wrong – if it turns out to be difficult to produce the sorbent, or that it degrades more quickly, if it's trickier technologically, if turns out to be more expensive than expected, then in a sense by not acting quickly in the near-term, you've effectively locked yourself into a higher temperature pathway." That is bad risk….when we know how to do it with other ways that are time proven….No-till, Green Play Ammonia, Cover Cropping, Rotation, storing water where it fails with root systems and soil structure. GJS.

Critics of DAC point out that much of its appeal lies in the promise of a hypothetical technology that allows us to continue living our carbon-rich lifestyles. Yet Oldham argues that for some hard-to-decarbonise industries, such as aviation, offsets that fund DAC might be the most viable option. "If it's cheaper and easier to pull carbon out of air than to stop going up in the air, maybe that is what DAC plays in emission control."

Gambhir argues that it's not an "either-or" situation. "We need to rapidly reduce emissions in the near-term, but at same time, determinedly develop DAC to work out for sure if it's going to be there for us in the future." Zelikova agrees: "It's a 'yes, and' situation," she says. "DAC is a critical tool to balance out the carbon budget, so what we can't eliminate today can be removed later."

As Oldham seeks to scale up Carbon Engineering, the biggest fundamental factor is proving large scale DAC is "feasible, affordable and available". If he's successful, the future of our planet’s climate may once again be decided in the oil fields of Texas.

In Nebraska if you are off base your teacher will tell you. "Somebody is smoking ditch weed." There are much better choices. GJS March 14, 2021.

Copies submitted to Jim Schepers, John Shanahan, Tom Fairweather, AJ Foster. For review.

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