Scientists Turn Captured Carbon Emissions Into Fuel Pellets

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On the eve of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, which will take place this November, several major announcements regarding the fight against global warming have been made. Sweden hopes to become the world’s first fossil fuel-free nation, and the International Energy Agency has concluded that one-quarter of the world will be powered by renewable energy by the end of the decade. In the midst of these milestones, a small Canadian start-up has joined the fight too: it has a plan to remove carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into pellets of fuel, as reported by MIT Technology Review.

The concept is relatively simple, but it has grand ambitions. Instead of focusing on power plant emissions, Carbon Engineering's “direct air capture plant” will focus on everyday carbon emissions from infrastructure, agriculture, transportation and buildings.

Firstly, liquid hydrogen is split from water using a process known as electrolysis, wherein an electric current generated by solar panels separates the hydrogen atoms from the oxygen atom in each molecule of water. Separately, carbon dioxide is extracted directly from the air using a series of fans and then combined with this liquid hydrogen to form a hydrocarbon fuel, which can be used to power transportation.

This initiative by Carbon Engineering, partly funded by Bill Gates and founded by Harvard climate scientist David Keith, aims to construct a $9 million (£5.9 million) conversion plant that will remove 1 million tonnes (1.1 million tons) of carbon dioxide from the air every single day: the equivalent of taking 100 cars off the road every year. It’s a small start, but it’s a start.

“It's still a pilot-scale plant,” explained Adrian Corless, Carbon Engineering's CEO, to CBC News. “But it's very important, because it's the first time that anyone's demonstrated a technology that captures CO2 that has the potential to be scaled up to be large enough to be relevant from an environmental or climate point of view.”

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is not a new idea. Several schemes have been conceived before, most of which involve capturing carbon dioxide at its emission point at power plants and transporting it to a deep underground geological reservoir and preventing it from reaching the atmosphere…at least for a few million years. It is kept within continental caverns, away from oceans so the carbon cannot contribute to harmful ocean acidification.

It’s a viable scheme: applying the working technology to a conventional, fossil fuel power plant could stop up to 90% of the carbon emissions reaching the atmosphere, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). There are potential issues with leakage, however, as the captured CO2 may seep into the atmosphere faster than predicted.

Nevertheless, carbon capture remains a geoengineering scheme that aims to directly mitigate against the effect of greenhouse gas emissions; other geoengineering schemes merely attempt to mask it. Pumping radiation-reflecting aerosols into the atmosphere to cool the planet, for example, would certainly reduce global temperatures, but it would produce vast amounts of acid rain, alter the flow of our rivers, and ultimately merely covers up the effects of greenhouse gases within the atmosphere.

Once the plant in Squamish, British Columbia is up and running by 2016 or 2017, it will produce up to 400 liters (88 gallons) of gasoline or diesel per day, created from the very waste product given off as it’s burned.

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