In the Canadian town of Squamish, there’s a small building with a massive fan on its purple roof. The fan is rapidly pulling outside air into the facility. The air enters the outdoors again, but it’s not quite the same. About 75% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) is gone. Run by the company Carbon Engineering (CE), the building is the pilot plant for their technology that directly captures CO2 from the air. The technology just received a $68 million funding boost from three major fossil fuel companies: Occidental, Chevron, and the coal company BHP. So how does the technology work, and why is the fossil fuel industry investing in it?

The process is relatively simple considering the feat it accomplishes. The 13-foot fan pulls air through an ‘air contactor’ that contains a hydroxide-based solution (essentially water with a very high pH level). The hydroxide reacts with the CO2 gas, which then dissolves into the solution. After a bit more processing, a pure stream of CO2 gas can be pulled from the solution. The process overall is estimated to cost $94-234 per tonne of CO2.

CE can capture pure CO2 directly from the air, but what then? There are two main options. The first one involves more chemistry. By reacting the CO2 with hydrogen, CE is able to convert the gas into synthetic fuels. Their Air to Fuels technology can produce gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel. Because fuels are made of carbon that was already in the air, burning them does not contribute additional greenhouse gases that worsen climate change. And they can be immediately used in current planes, cars, and ships. Further, CE emphasizes they make all of the fuel using “clean electricity” – ensuring they stay on brand.

The second option, however, is why fossil fuel companies are recently investing in CE’s air capture technology. Companies can inject CO2 gas into the ground to coax out oil buried deep within. The injected CO2 stays underground in a basically leak-proof tomb. Intergovernmental assessments have confirmed this, projecting that only around 1% of the CO2 buried leaks out after 5000 years. Meanwhile, the extracted fuels are used per usual. If oil companies use CO2 provided by CE, they are, to an extent, trading carbon in the air for carbon in the ground. Effectively, the strategy reduces the net amount of CO2 that the extracted fuel contributes to the atmosphere, thus reduces the fuel’s impact on climate change. This approach allows fossil companies to meet stringent regulations set by California on carbon emissions from vehicles.

Option 2 has created a bit of controversy. Several environmental groups have argued the technology is merely being used to prolong the fossil fuel era. It’s worth noting, though, that the U.S. fossil fuel industry could get a much cheaper source of CO2 to extract oil from deep in the ground. California’s regulations have arguably pushed these national companies to invest in a climate solution they otherwise would not have considered.

Still, this debate may be premature. CE currently only has the one pilot plant. Whether more direct-air-capture plants will sprout up in the future is uncertain. But investment boosts certainly make it more likely, even if they are from the industry that climate activists oppose the most.

Managing Correspondent: Jordan Wilkerson

Learn more at the Carbon Engineering website: carbonengineering.com

Image Credit: Pexels

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