WASHINGTON – Maybe we won’t all die in the next 12 years from catastrophic climate change after all.
Though you wouldn’t know it from the braying of the doom-and-gloomers in the media, not to mention the political activists ready to reinvent the global political economy to head off a carbon-dioxide apocalypse, there’s actually good news to report on the greenhouse-gas front.
You may not have to give up air travel. You may not have to give up driving or air-conditioning or 90 percent of your income to the global war on climate change.
It turns out capitalism might just solve the problem before the sea rises and the arctic ice cap melts.
One company, Carbon Engineering, has been hard at work on turning carbon dioxide — what some see as the biggest threat to the planet — into something as marketable as feed stock or synthetic fuel.
“Being able to use something that we’ve seen as a waste for so long, carbon dioxide, as a feed stock to making something useful that we need is pretty incredible,” says Jenny McCahill, a chemist and engineer with the company.
But it’s actually a much better deal than that.
If climate-change activists are correct, it would be like turning the world’s thermonuclear stockpiles into plowshares – and making money doing it.
What’s the secret?
The first step, according to McCahill, is pulling huge volumes of air in while extracting the infinitesimally small amount of CO2 — about 0.04 percent. Then chemicals are added and a solution is heated to create white pellets that look like the filling in bean bag chairs. These contain about 50 per cent CO2.
Then the pellets are heated to 900 degrees Celsius (1,652 degrees Fahrenheit) to further concentrate the CO2 into a gas. At that point, the company could inject that underground to address climate change.
It’s proven science, but it hasn’t yet proven profitable.
One option on the drawing board is combining CO2 gas with hydrogen extracted from water to make a clear, synthetic fuel that McCahill says is similar to crude oil.
“It’s a lot purer, so we don’t have impurities like sulfur and nitrogen components that end up with that soot when you combust,” she says.
Once this fuel is put through a refinery, McCahill says it can be turned into products such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
There’s just one problem. Burning that fuel emits carbon dioxide, so essentially carbon would just be moved around instead of reduced in the atmosphere.
Carbon Engineering has an answer, however.
“We capture it again the next day and we make more fuel out of it,” says company Chief Executive Officer Steve Oldham. “So the CO2 becomes recycled, and consequently there’s no additional emissions from using fuel.”
What’s the cost at the pump? About 20 percent more than gasoline, says Oldham.
Still that seems a lot more practical than the calls for reinventing global economy.
With investors that include Bill Gates, Carbon Engineering has spent $30 million perfecting this process. The company says it can extract carbon dioxide from the air for less than $100 a ton, a claim two other companies, Climeworks and Global Thermostat, also make.
There are other companies on the job, too.
A British firm founded by a chemistry professor has secured investment from both BP and Drax to develop its novel technology for capturing carbon emissions.
Called C-Capture, it has raised about $4.5 million in an equity funding round led by the oil company and a power-plant owner.
It turns out it might just be possible to suck enough carbon dioxide out of the air to head off the dreaded apocalypse.
Scientists have also found a rapid way of producing magnesite, a mineral which stores carbon dioxide. If this can be developed to an industrial scale, it opens the door to removing CO2 from the atmosphere for long-term storage underground.