A Calgary-based company is launching a ground-breaking carbon capture project to suck C02 out of the atmosphere and turn that gas into fuel.

Carbon Engineering says its $9-million pilot plant in Squamish, B.C., will pull in about one tonne of C02 from the atmosphere a day, the equivalent of taking about 100 cars off the road annually.

"It's pretty basic technology that's involved," said Adrian Corless, CEO of Carbon Engineering on the Calgary Eyeopener.

It's referred to as a 'wet-scrubbing technology,' "where we can take C02 into a solution, we turn it into a solid, and then in the final stage, we heat that solid up and release a pure C02, which we can either store if we're trying to get rid of that emission, or we can use it to make things, in particular for us, that's fuels."

Carbon Engineering was founded by Harvard climate scientist and former University of Calgary professor David Keith. It has the backing of some investors with deep pockets and big names, including its biggest investors, Bill Gates, co-creator of Microsoft, and Murray Edwards, part-owner of the Calgary Flames and founder of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.

Carbon Capture Squamish 2

Calgary-based Carbon Engineering's first direct air capture plant in Squamish, B.C., extracts carbon dioxide directly from atmospheric air. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"These guys have a long vision, in terms of what needs to happen, and they have the patience to let this technology develop," said Corless.

It's important because it's the first time that anyone's demonstrated a technology that captures C02 with the potential to be scaled up to be large enough to be relevant from an environmental or climate point of view, he says.

The plant works by moving large volumes of air through a piece of equipment where CO2 is absorbed by a liquid solution. It's then transformed into pellets of calcium carbonate. The pellets are heated to 800 or 900 C and break down, releasing pure carbon.

If it was just turning carbon into fuel, that would sound a little too good to be true...it's not just carbon, you need a source of energy."

"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."

Turning CO2 into fuel

Soon the company will take the technology even farther, building another system that will turn the captured carbon into useable transportation fuel for ships or planes by adding hydrogen from renewable sources, such as solar, wind or hydro.

"And so ultimately it's about finding sources or locations that have good renewable or carbon-free sources of power that you can produce hydrogen, which is the other key ingredient so you can make that fuel."

Corless says the plant looks like a refinery, and the company is looking for geographic locations that make sense for its first commercial plant.

"There's places where it's kind of obvious, (because) they've got good solar, they've got good regulations like California," he said, or Hawaii, where fuel is expensive because it has to be trucked and shipped in.

"Or you could think, in a place like Alberta there's a desire to make some really low carbon fuels to blend with the fuels we're making here right now to help keep us on track in terms of staying up with the rest of the world in terms of the carbon intensity of the fuels we produce," Corless said.

With files from The Canadian Press, Calgary Eyeopener