It sounds a bit like an environmental dream: a factory that sucks carbon dioxide from the air itself (cheaply, too), and converts it into fuel that can be used for cars and planes. But it’s an actual project developed by scientists from Harvard University and Carbon Engineering, a Bill Gates funded company. If the new process is successfully implemented at scale, it could mean a more “optimistic” future for climate change.
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In 2011, experts estimated that it would cost at least $600 to remove a metric ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The new approach could remove the same amount for as little as $94. And it mostly relies on pre-existing processes and techniques, like what’s already being used cooling towers and paper mills.
The technique involves three major steps: first, outside air gets sucked into a factory “contactor” and exposed to an alkaline liquid. When the air meets the strong base, it turns into water liquid containing carbon dioxide. In a factory, it undergoes a number of chemical reactions that then separates the base from the acid — a technique commonly performed in paper mills. Lastly, carbon dioxide gets combined with hydrogen, and converted into liquid fuels, including ones that can be used to power cars and planes (meaning that someday, the company could produce truly carbon-neutral fuels for vehicles). Researchers are optimistic and hopeful about the technique.
Scientists have already tested it in a pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia, and the team is seeking funding to build an industrial-scale version of the plant. If it’s successful, it could mean a solution to some of the hardest to decarbonize parts of the economy: steel and cement manufacturing, or long distance air travel. All it would come with is a price tag: the removal of CO2 would amount to something between three to five percent of the global GDP (at $100 a ton for removal). “This puts an upper bound on how expensive it could be to solve the climate problem, because there are lots of ways to reduce emissions for less than $100 a ton,” Ken Caldeira, a senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science told The Atlantic.