Senior process engineer Jane Ritchie holds solid calcium carbonate pellets that were formed by precipitating captured carbon dioxide at Calgary-based Carbon Engineering's first direct air capture plant in Squamish, B.C. Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press
The mountain air in Squamish, B.C., could soon be even fresher with the launch of a groundbreaking carbon capture operation.
The pilot project will suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, not from an industrial plant like other such operations, with the goal of turning the gas into fuel.
Built and operated by Calgary-based Carbon Engineering, the $9-million plant will capture about one tonne of CO2 per day, which is the equivalent of taking about 100 cars off the road annually.
Founded by Harvard climate scientist David Keith and backed by big-name investors including Bill Gates, Carbon Engineering has spent several years turning academic research into technology that could be commercialized.
The company will unveil its pilot plant in Squamish on Friday.
The operation has been capturing CO2 since May, but its primary purpose is to prove that the technology can work on a much larger scale, taking in up to one-million tonnes per day.
"It's still a pilot-scale plant," explained Adrian Corless, Carbon Engineering's CEO. "But it's very important, because it's the first time that anyone's demonstrated a technology that captures CO2 that has the potential to be scaled up to be large enough to be relevant from an environmental or climate point of view."
The plant works by moving large volumes of air through a piece of equipment where CO2 is absorbed by a liquid solution, and then transformed into pellets of calcium carbonate. The pellets are then heated to 800 or 900 degrees Celsius and break down, releasing pure carbon.
"There's no real magic to it," Corless said. "The pieces of equipment already exist today in very large scale. And we've really adapted them from other industries."
It may not be magic, but it is innovative — Carbon Engineering is a world leader in direct-air carbon capture, Corless said.
Soon the company will take the technology even farther, building another system that will turn the captured carbon into useable transportation fuel by adding hydrogen from renewable sources, such as solar, wind or hydro.
"It's not something that we were the first to think about it," Corless said. "I think we're just the first to be in position with that key piece of technology — which is the scalable source of atmospheric CO2 — that allows you to think about making a larger scale fuel synthesis plant."
Once that plant is running in 2016 or 2017, it will produce 200 to 400 litres of gasoline or diesel per day, and there are already groups interested in buying the product, Corless said.
Eventually, the fuel could be used for ships or planes.
"The nice thing about the technology is that there are no real limitations for it to ultimately, in theory, displace all of the existing fossil-based transportation fuels," Corless said.
Built on the site of a former Nexen chemical facility in Squamish, Carbon Engineering's pilot plant is bringing new technology to an area undergoing long-term development.
The pilot plant could be game changing in terms of reducing the global carbon footprint and it could make the mountain town a hub for green technology in the process, said Mayor Patricia Heintzman.
"When you start to bring in people who are problem solvers and entrepreneurs who see opportunity when it's there and aren't blind to it, that's an exciting place for a community to be. You can really grow on that," she said.
"I think it's great when smart innovators are coming into a community. That's where your future is."