Though there is still much work to be done, carbon-friendly technology is continuously finding new ways to make and deliver the things we need to fuel the world’s people, communities and economies. But what about the carbon that’s already in the atmosphere? Or those industries like aerospace or maritime shipping for which lower-carbon operation is inherently difficult? That’s where Direct Air Capture (DAC) comes in.
The air we breathe is composed primarily of four gases: Nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is only about .04 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon is a natural part of everyday life, found in almost all living things. The planet naturally processes carbon dioxide through plant life, soil and other means of storing and processing energy. But excessive CO2 emissions outpaces the ability for the earth to naturally process this CO2, and that’s when the natural cycle of processing CO2 breaks down—resulting in global problems such as climate change.
The air we breathe is composed primarily of four gases: Nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is only about 0.04 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon is a natural part of everyday life, found in almost all living things. The planet naturally cycles carbon dioxide through the air, oceans, plant and animal life, soil and rocks. But excessive man-made CO2 emissions have disturbed the Earth’s natural balance and resulted in too much carbon dioxide in the air—causing global climate change.
What Is Direct Air Capture?
Direct air capture is a technology which extracts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is not a new idea. In fact, the U.S. Navy has been doing it for decades—scrubbing CO2 from the air that submarine crews breathe so it does not become toxic. This was conventionally done chemically using sodium hydroxide and calcium hydroxide, a caustic alkali also used in military gas masks dating back to WWI. Similar systems were used by NASA to keep the breathing environments in spacecraft healthy. A number of companies have developed carbon-removal technologies over the years, including systems for industrial and atmospheric applications.
Carbon Engineering: Giving the Industry Breathing Room
The new and exciting bit is that now not only has atmospheric carbon removal tech come a long way—but so have the economics of these efforts. This innovation has taken the process from the realm of the possible to the realm of the profitable, and was pioneered by Carbon Engineering, a partner of Oxy Low Carbon Ventures. Based in Canada, Carbon Engineering created, developed, and delivered a DAC technology that has the capability to balance the planet’s carbon profile through its simplicity and scaling potential.
The revolutionary practicality and potential of the system has garnered investment not just by Occidental but also Bill Gates, Rusheen Capital, Chevron and BHP. OLCV is developing the world’s largest Carbon Engineering DAC facility in the Permian Basin, designing and engineering the facility to work with its extensive network of Permian sequestration facilities.
How Does It Work, Specifically?
To the uninitiated, Carbon Engineering’s DAC unit looks like a small cooling tower—and with good reason. The unit, known as an “air contactor,” was actually designed in consultation with cooling tower engineers. Air is pulled into this device using a large fan. Inside the device is a honeycomb-like packing with a capture-trapping liquid. The air is pulled through this packing, reacting carbon into the solution. From there, the liquid solution flows out of the unit, where carbon is extracted from the solution to make calcium carbonate.
The system is doing two things at all times: 1.) pulling air into the unit and running that air through a carbon-trapping liquid and then 2.) removing carbon from that liquid. All of this happens in a continuous, sustainable process with the liquid and fans constantly blowing and pumps constantly flowing. And all with attractive manufacturing economics and process scalability. The pure CO2 made from this process can be used to lower the carbon intensity of global energy production, or even combined with hydrogen to create carbon-neutral products like jet fuel, plastics and more.
The Sky is the Limit
Carbon Engineering’s DAC technology could be scaled up to capture gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere, routing carbonate solution from whole banks of air contactors into large-scale processing and production infrastructure. These plants could be built around the world. And unlike biofuel operations, the facilities can be built almost anywhere so that they compete less with global land or food resources.
Although there is no silver bullet in transitioning energy and industry to carbon-neutral operations, the state of DAC technology shows tremendous promise in providing new tools to help balance carbon emission objectives with lifestyle, market and industry imperatives.