Why we’re not additional

People tend to grow vegetables in a field when emissions rise from cooling towers at a coal-fired power plant in Tongling, Anhui Province, China, on Wednesday January 16, 2019.


Elon Musk will pay $ 100 million for a prize to develop the best carbon capture technology. (At least he tweets. So far, details are rare.)

The loner tech CEO’s promise isn’t particularly remarkable for his generosity. With a net worth of over $ 200 billion, $ 100 million makes up 0.05% of Musk’s assets.

Even so, the world’s richest person in the tweet draws attention to an often overlooked technology that has been around since the 1970s but has largely been relegated to niche areas of the energy community.

“Mr. Musk’s announcement reflects a maturation of the private sector related to climate change and investment,” Julio Friedmann, senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, told CNBC via email. “As in the past, Mr. Musk’s announcement messed up the gumball machine.”

Why not just plant more trees?

A popular reaction to Musk’s tweet was that he’d better spend his money planting trees. Trees, like other plants, consume carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and release oxygen. There is an international initiative, 1t.org, which aims to restore and grow 1 trillion trees by 2030 to help curb climate change. The Trillion Trees Campaign is run by the World Economic Forum and funded by the Marc R. Benioff Foundation, a philanthropic campaign of the same name funded by billionaire Salesforce CEO.

But even 1t.org knows that planting trees is not a silver bullet.

“Tackling climate change requires investing in technologies that will help limit future emissions, such as electric vehicles, and removing carbon from the atmosphere. Nature-based solutions can help with both, but we will need thousands of solutions combined.” says Tom Crowther, tenure-track professor for global ecosystem ecology at ETH Zurich and scientific advisor to the United Nations Trillion Tree Campaign. “As part of a diverse climate protection plan, there is great potential for direct carbon capture technology,” says Crowther CNBC from Switzerland via email.

Musk too. In response to a tweet recommending tree planting, Musk said trees are “part of the solution, but they need lots of fresh water and land. We may need something that will be very big industrial in 10 to 20 years.”

With that in mind, the focus here is on exploring where carbon capture, use, and storage or sequestration (CCUS), often abbreviated to “carbon capture”, is currently available and why it has not been widely used.

Carbon Capture from Factory Emissions: Where It Says

According to the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based intergovernmental energy organization, there are currently 21 major CCUS trading projects around the world that are removing carbon dioxide from factory emissions. The first was founded in 1972.

The earliest CCUS technology was used for improved oil recovery, which means that the carbon dioxide is pumped into an oil field to help oil companies extract more oil from the ground. Howard Herzog, chief research engineer with the MIT Energy Initiative and author of the book “Carbon Capture,” says CNBC.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that carbon capture technology was explored for climate action, but even then it was “mostly solitary wolves,” says Herzog. In the 1990s, “activity really picked up,” he says.

An example in the United States is Decatur, Illinois, where food processing giant Archer Daniels Midland Company started a carbon capture and storage project in 2017. With a capacity of 1.1 million tons of carbon per year from the released emissions from a corn processing plant and stores that carbon a mile and a half underground.

Part of the carbon capture project at Archer Daniels Midland Company in Decatur, Illinois.

Photo courtesy Archer Daniels Midland Company

For carbon capture at the factory, the emissions are passed through a vessel with a liquid solvent that essentially absorbs the carbon dioxide. From there, the solvent has to be heated in a second tower – called a “stripper” or “regenerator” – to remove the CO2, where it is then sent to underground storage. The solvent can then be reused in the first vessel or tower, says Herzog.

If storage is done carefully, “it should be fine,” says Herzog. “We have no experience of the magnitude we want to go,” says Herzog, “but we’ve shown that you can do it right.”

The US Department of Energy is developing models that simulate the flow of stored carbon dioxide to understand and predict chemical changes and the effects of potentially increased pressure.

Carbon capture from the air: where it is

In terms of reversing global climate change, too much carbon has already been released into the atmosphere for us not to try to capture and store carbon, says Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions and a professor at Arizona State University.

“The question of whether you want to save or not [carbon] 1980 was a very good question, “Lackner told CNBC.” But you had to have this discussion 30 or 40 years ago because you still had the opportunity to stop the train before we collide with something. ”

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is tracked as in ppm (parts per million). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, atmospheric carbon dioxide is 414.02 ppm as of December.

“We started the industrial revolution with 280 ppm in the atmosphere,” Lackner told CNBC. “We now have 415 [ppm]and we’re currently increasing at 2.5ppm per year. “The effects of this rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are already dire and will get worse.” The oceans have started to rise, hurricanes have gotten much worse, the climate has gotten more extreme, and that will only get worse in the next ten years, “says Lackner.

The only choice, says Lackner, is to “break down” the atmospheric carbon dioxide – or suffer unknown, devastating consequences.

The removal of carbon from the air, rather than from a factory chimney, is called “direct air capture”. According to the IEA, there are currently 15 systems for direct air separation in Europe, the USA and Canada. “Carbon removal is expected to play a key role in the transition to a net-zero energy system,” says the IEA, but it is currently a very expensive technology.

Direct air separation is “very expensive because the CO2 in the atmosphere is only 0.04%,” Herzog told CNBC, and the technical process of removing carbon dioxide from a gas becomes more expensive the lower the concentration of carbon dioxide becomes. “But it’s very seductive. A lot of people jumped on it,” he says.

Lackner sees this as a necessity. “In the end, I see CO2 as a waste problem. For two centuries we just dumped the waste from energy production – that is carbon dioxide – into the atmosphere and didn’t think about it any further, and we are gradually awakening to the fact that it is unacceptable,” says Lackner.

The future of carbon capture technology

The technology to capture carbon is in place and there is an urgent need to mitigate climate change. Why isn’t it used everywhere?

The problem is the economy, says Herzog. “It’s cheaper to bet [carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere. It’s cheaper to let it go up the chimney and then put that chemical plant on the back of the chimney to remove it, “says Herzog.” Who will pay for that? ”

To change this reality, the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere must have an economic cost.

“The best capture technology will lower these costs, but it will never be zero. Therefore, even the best carbon capture technology will be useless unless the world is willing to put a price on carbon,” said Berend Smit, professor of chemistry and biomolecular engineering of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, CNBC communicated via email. His research focuses on finding the optimal material for carbon capture.

In the meantime, scientists and researchers are working to improve the current technologies for carbon capture.

“Over the past 10 years there have been a number of innovations and improvements that have enabled us to save more energy and save up to 70% less on new carbon capture processes,” said Paitoon (PT) Tontiwachwuthikul, professor of industrial and process systems engineering at the Canadian Academy of Engineering and co-founder of the Research Institute for Clean Energy Technologies at the University of Regina, CNBC informed CNBC via email. “This includes novel solvents (and their mixtures) as well as new process hardware elements (e.g. new columns, catalysts, etc.).”

Smit is also working on how to use some kind of sponge “with a strong affinity for carbon dioxide,” he says. “So if we let air flow through the sponge, the CO2 is removed. When the material is saturated with CO2, we have to heat it, pure CO2 comes out, which we can then store. The sponge is empty and we can start over.” start.” . ”

The artistic impression of a mechanical tree farm.

Image courtesy of Silicon Kingdom Holdings Ltd.

Lackner has developed a free-standing device to remove carbon dioxide from the air. “All the machines out there are sucking in carbon dioxide or pushing carbon dioxide with fans and blowers … we think the wind on its own is good enough to move the air, and our design aims to just stand passively in the wind like a Baum. “While the technology was being demonstrated on campus, it is still in its infancy.

Basically, it depends on the money. “You need a regulatory framework in which, if you want to dig up carbon, you’d better show that you’re putting the same amount away,” says Lackner. “If you definitely have a cheaper way, do it first. If you don’t have a cheaper way, you have no excuse because it will work.”

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