It is no secret that world leaders are responding to the shift in the earth’s climate with solid action plans. To mitigate and eventually reverse the damage, the US and most of Europe have set the goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, with the rest of the world following close behind.
When examining the various methods for curbing emissions – from phasing out internal combustion engines to harnessing solar and wind power sources, to deriving new ways of recycling waste of all sorts – almost all involve preventing the pollutants from entering the atmosphere in the first place. What is seldom thought about is whether we can do anything to actually remove the harmful chemicals that are already in the air.
The new technology known as direct air capture (DAC) is exactly what it sounds like. Governments and businesses are becoming increasingly able to harness direct air capture technology as a means of extracting the excess carbon that sits in the air, thus reducing the ratio of unwanted chemicals that contribute to the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere. A new round of federal funding from the Department of Energy looks to accelerate the development of this exciting new process.
There is something to be said about maintaining a sense of caution when going down this road. If we as a society put a significant amount of money into methods of removing existing pollution, we may be indirectly incentivizing the public and more importantly businesses to maintain the status quo, in a time where we need to shatter the sustainability norms that have existed for a century. While the federal government’s $12 million will help support important projects, public and private entities are also taking a lead in delivering much-needed investments and resources.
Funds being levied by the DoE are going to six different research and development projects, with the intention of increasing the efficiency of the direct air capture process as a whole. Up until this point, the energy costs involved in DAC operations have been too high to make it viable at scale. Projects have historically been carbon neutral money drains at best, and carbon positive at worst. Thankfully we are beginning to see breakthroughs on that front from innovators in places like Arizona and North Carolina. It is also evident that the current administration sees direct air capture as a “crucial” component of the nationwide effort to achieve total carbon neutrality by mid-century, according to Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm.
North Carolina-based Cormetech Inc. is one of the six recipients and has been granted $1.5 million for upgrades to their ‘contactor’. Compared to the more commonplace carbon capture and storage (CCS) operations, which generally prevent emissions from even entering the atmosphere in the first place, direct air capture has a higher energy cost due to the fact that carbon dioxide is much more diluted once already in the air. The contactor essentially functions as the engine for the DAC setup, so Cormetech will use the funding to improve its overall efficiency as a power source. “We have demonstrated the technical feasibility,” says Cormetech CEO Mike Mattes. “This award will allow us to accelerate the development and improve the CO2 capture rates.”
A partnership between Carbon Engineering and Occidental Petroleum looks to provide a first look at how DAC will work at scale. Currently set for construction in western Texas, the plant is expected to be able to remove one million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually, to then be stored underground. “We’re essentially providing a service, much like water treatment, sanitation, or waste disposal,” says Carbon Engineering CEO Steve Oldham. “Over the last few years we have observed a growing consensus that both aggressive emissions reductions and large-scale removal of CO2 from the atmosphere is essential.” The first of its kind, the plant is expected to be fully operational by 2023.