Is Direct Air Capture the Future of Climate Solutions?

Reducing global emissions seems hard. And expensive. 

Last October, the UN reported that “there’s no credible pathway to 1.5C in place today, despite legally binding promises made at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference to prevent average temperatures rising by more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.”

What’s more, the very things needed to decarbonize — solar panels, wind turbines, EVs — require vast amounts of steel and other mined materials that come from carbon-intensive processes. 

Consider that a single mining excavator like the Liebherr 9800 runs two 2,000-horsepower engines that each burn 120 gallons of diesel per hour. That’s over 2,800 gallons in every twelve-hour shift, or some million gallons per year. For one single excavator. 

In total, metal mining consumes 10% of world energy.

Is Direct Air Capture the Future of Climate Solutions?

Your editor has wondered for some time why there is no pursuit of some Dr. Seuss-like device to simply eradicate our atmosphere of the unwanted compound. A Carbon-Sucker-Wucker, or something similar. 

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As it turns out, we’re not that far away from such devices. 

Construction on the world’s largest carbon removal plant began in November 2022. It’s being paid for by Occidental Petroleum Corp. and built by a Canadian startup called Carbon Engineering. The plant would remove 500,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere and be located in the Permian basin. According to Carbon Engineering:

Our Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology does this by pulling in atmospheric air, then through a series of chemical reactions, extracts the carbon dioxide (CO2) from it while returning the rest of the air to the environment. This is what plants and trees do every day as they photosynthesize, except Direct Air Capture technology does it much faster, with a smaller land footprint, and delivers the carbon dioxide in a pure, compressed form that can then be stored underground or reused.

The company is private and has so far raised more than $100 million and counts Bill Gates, BHP, and Chevron among its early-stage investors. It will need significant scale and cost reductions to succeed. 

Carbon Engineering believes it could get the costs to between $94 and $232 per ton on a one-million-ton-per-year unit — twice the size of the one they’re building now, which means current costs are likely higher. It also requires either 8.81 GJ of natural gas, or 5.25 GJ of gas and 366 kWhr of electricity, per ton of CO2 captured.

Even if you take the low end of those costs, the plant being built now would cost $50 million per year to capture 0.001346982% of the world’s 37.12 billion metric tons of annual global emission. 

Now we just need to build 74,240 more of them at an annual cost of $3,700,000,000,000 and our climate problems will be solved. 

Snark aside, I do think that human ingenuity in general and devices like this in particular will prove valuable tools in the climate fight. And the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year included a $130-per-metric-ton subsidy for Direct Air Capture that can be realized for 12 years after the carbon capture equipment is placed in service.

Other technologies are being developed as well. 

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MIT News reported recently that “a new method for removing the greenhouse gas from the ocean could be far more efficient than existing systems for removing it from the air.” And continues: 

The existing methods for removing carbon dioxide from seawater apply a voltage across a stack of membranes to acidify a feed stream by water splitting. This converts bicarbonates in the water to molecules of CO2, which can then be removed under vacuum.

While it could be cheaper than Direct Air Capture because the concentration of carbon dioxide in seawater is more than 100 times greater than it is in air, it will still be two years before a practical demonstration project could be built. 

And if we can’t sucky-wucky the carbon from the air or the sea, maybe we can blocky-wocky the sun. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), at the direction of Congress, is conducting a program called Earth’s Radiation Budget. They are studying the possibility of using solar geoengineering — also called solar radiation management — to make the atmosphere more reflective of the sun’s heat. 

Since 2020, the agency has been regularly launching weather balloons — wonder if they lost any lately? — to get baseline studies of reflective sulfate particles that occur naturally in the atmosphere as a result of volcanic eruptions and large forest fires. 

In February, NOAA began flights to the stratosphere using one of NASA’s WB-57 research jets, equipped with 17 instruments that can measure sulfur dioxide levels down to two parts per trillion. They’ll fly up to 65,000 feet out of Houston and Fairbanks, with missions planned in 2024 and 2025 for Costa Rica and the Southern Hemisphere. 

But until we can sucky-wucky or blocky-wocky, splitting atoms and storing electrons will have to do.

Nick Hodge

Nick Hodge
Publisher, Resource Stock Digest