Clean Energy Conversions Lab Helps Chart the Road to CO2 Removal

A new report co-authored by 68 scientists from more than a dozen institutions—including the University of Pennsylvania—offers a first-of-its-kind high-resolution assessment of carbon dioxide (CO2) removal (CDR) in the United States.

Spearheaded by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and commissioned by the Department of Energy (DOE) with additional support from the ClimateWorks Foundation, “Roads to Removal: Options for Carbon Dioxide Removal in the United States” charts a path for the United States to achieve a net-zero greenhouse gas economy by 2050—ensuring the nation’s climate security and resilience by cleaning up Earth’s atmosphere and addressing the root cause of climate change.

The report provides an integrated analysis of the CDR techniques and resources that are currently available, along with the costs that will be incurred on the path to net-zero.

“This report shows that to achieve the billion-ton scale of carbon dioxide removal needed by 2050 to achieve net-zero goals, the United States must use all removal methods available—oceans, forests, cropland soils, biomass and minerals and chemicals through direct air capture—to make it happen,” said Jennifer Wilcox, principal deputy assistant secretary for Fossil Energy and Carbon Management at DOE.

 “The Roads to Removal report is a critical tool that climate practitioners can now use to better understand the key factors and pathways involved in removing CO2 from the air at the scale necessary to meet our national commitments,” said Wilcox, a professor at Penn Engineering and the Kleinman Center who is currently on leave in order to serve at the DOE.

Included in this analysis is a chapter dedicated to the transportation of CO2 and biomass, written by researchers from Wilcox’s Clean Energy Conversions Lab, an affiliated lab of the Kleinman Center. Penn authors include Peter Psarras, Hélène Pilorgé, Maxwell Pisciotta, Diamantoula Giannopoulos, and Alina Ho.

In this chapter (Chapter 5), they explain that some CO2-removal pathways, like direct air capture with storage (DACS) or biomass with carbon removal and storage (BiCRS), involve several steps that may not all occur at the same location. If CO2 or biomass cannot be stored at the site where it is collected, it must be transported elsewhere.

Where transportation is needed, Psarras and his research team conclude that CO2 transportation will be most efficient with pipelines. To enhance flexibility in capacity and routing, alternative transportation modes like trucking, rail, and barges are also viable options. Developing these transportation options can contribute to job creation and retention. However, routing necessitates careful consideration and strategic actions to avoid perpetuating historical inequities.

 “Historically transport has almost been forced because we’ve been focused on point-source capture. And the storage basins aren’t movable,” said Psarras, who currently leads Wilcox’s lab on Penn campus.

“What’s beautiful about CDR is we have liberty about where to site things. The best transport option we have found is—none at all. Co-locate these with storage basins, so we can take transport out of the picture. Take those risks and costs out of the picture. We think communities would be very supportive of that.”

Beneath our feet, the capacity for carbon dioxide storage is vast. To achieve net-zero CO2 emissions and limit global warming impacts, active scaling of atmospheric CO2 removal (CDR) is urgently needed. 

The full Roads to Removal report concludes that with today’s technologies, removing 1 billion metric tons of CO2 per year will annually cost roughly $130 billion in 2050, or about 0.5% of current GDP. This will require increasing the uptake of carbon in forests and in working agricultural lands, converting waste biomass into fuels and CO2 and using purpose-built machines to remove CO2 directly from the air. This ensemble of lowest-cost approaches for CO2 removal would create more than 440,000 long-term jobs and can be achieved using renewable energy sources, with currently available land and below ground geologic storage. The granular analysis provided in the Roads to Removal report gives decision makers across the United States a lens for location-specific opportunities, enabling them to make decisions that best fit the places they call home.

The report was jointly commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), Bioenergy Technologies (BETO), Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) and Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM), with additional support from the ClimateWorks Foundation. The goal of this two-year undertaking was to help ensure the nation’s climate security and resilience while addressing one of the global challenges of our time.