Canadian company says it can make cost-effective fuel by sucking carbon dioxide from the air

Carbon Engineering is a Canadian company that sucks carbon out of the air and converts it to fuel. New research conducted by its founder suggests the company's methods could be a viable tool in the fight against climate change.

Fuel could be used by heavy transport like ships and planes, says company founder

Carbon Engineering's first direct air capture plant in Squamish, B.C., on Wednesday October 7, 2015. (Darryl Dyck/CP)
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A Canadian company claims it can help to combat climate change by not only taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, but by converting it into low-carbon fuel in a cost-effective way.

"We've developed a technology for capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and purifying it," said David Keith, co-founder of Carbon Engineering.

The carbon is then combined with hydrogen and oxygen to create fuel. That fuel, made by the company in Squamish, B.C., would be compatible with heavy transport, like ships or planes.

"It's really hard to squeeze carbon emissions out of the heavy end of the transportation sector, and we think this is a way....[to] make fuels which can help," said Keith, who is also a professor at Harvard University.

This is still very expensive in relative terms, compared to other technologies.- Glen Peters

The process works by forcing air from the atmosphere into contact with a solution that is a strong base.

"CO2 is a weak acid," Keith explained, "and the CO2, if you like, wants to be in the base and that's what takes it out."

Carbon Engineering has been testing the technology at its plant, powered by a mixture of solar and wind energy and natural gas.

The low-carbon fuel produced would have a large market in jurisdictions that regulate to discourage emissions, like California and B.C. The Canadian federal government is also working on clean-fuel standards.

Solid calcium carbonate pellets, formed by precipitating captured carbon dioxide at Carbon Engineering's plant in Squamish, B.C., on Wednesday October 7, 2015. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

The cost of cutting carbon

Other companies are developing similar carbon-capture technologies, such as the Swiss company Climeworks.  But Keith said he believes his company can remove carbon at a much larger scale, thereby driving down the cost of doing so. He has conducted research on the process and costs involved, published in the journal Joule.

Concerns over cost are one reason the idea of capturing CO2 has drawn skepticism in the past.

Glen Peters, director of research at CICERO, the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, welcomes the extra detail on costing that Carbon Engineering is offering.

But, he says, "this is still very expensive in relative terms, compared to other technologies."

The risk is that it distracts from early, deep mitigation now- Glen Peters

He is also concerned that technologies like this could divert attention and efforts from overall emissions reduction efforts.

Many of the models being explored to reach Paris climate accord targets would include some form of carbon capture, he said.

"Because we're so dependent on this technology [in these models], the risk is that it distracts from early, deep mitigation now."

Keith disagreed, saying that companies like his "only succeed in a world where government puts pressure on reducing emissions … we need government regulations that put a price on CO2 in the atmosphere."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.


This segment was produced and written by The Current's Alison Masemann.

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