Direct Air Capture Technology Takes a Big Step Forward

$68 million will now go towards commercial deployment of direct air capture of atmospheric CO2. It is a huge step forward, but will barely make a dent in global demand for negative emissions. 

On Thursday, a Canadian clean energy start-up called Carbon Engineering closed a $68 million equity financing round; the largest ever investment in direct capture of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This funding will allow Carbon Engineering to transition from experimental applications of its Direct Air Capture and “Air to Fuels” technologies, to industrial-scale commercialization at multiple facilities. By adapting and repurposing existing industrial equipment, Carbon Engineering has been able to design and test a facility that efficiently and affordably captures carbon dioxide directly out of the air, and either sequesters it in the form of solid calcium carbonate pellets, or combines it with hydrogen to synthesize a net-zero carbon liquid fuel that can be used to replace traditional transportation fuels. Each of the proposed 30-acre facilities would capture 0.98 Megatonnes of CO2/year when fully operational, equivalent to over 600 square miles of forest. More importantly, Carbon Engineering claims that it can capture this CO2 for less than $100/tonne; still a steep price as compared to the aforementioned forests, but not nearly as astronomical as industry estimates from just a few years ago. At this price, Carbon Engineering’s facilities could soon become economically viable or even profitable, especially if a punitive national carbon price is imposed, or if new uses for captured CO2 are developed.

Carbon Engineering’s successful funding is, by any measure, good news in the fight against climate change. In the latest special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, negative emissions contributed to every single possible pathway to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius. DAC, or some other method of carbon capture and sequestration is absolutely necessary if we are going to have even a fighting chance of meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, so the sooner it can be commercially deployed, the better. Equally, however, the emissions demand of the IPCC pathways illustrates just how infinitesimal the influence of carbon capture technology currently is, and how far we still have to go. The majority of the IPCC 1.5 degree pathways rely on at least 10 billion tonnes of annual negative emissions starting, in some cases, as soon as 2045. Even after Carbon Engineering’s first industrial facility is fully operational, it will contribute less that 1/10,000th of the annual negative emissions that we will need in order to meet our climate goals.

A handful of other companies have also secured funding for DAC ventures, but even combined, the industry is imperceptible in its global impact. A co-founder of a Swiss start-up called Climeworks stated that the end goal of his company was to off-set just 1% of global emissions. A lofty task, but one that falls desperately short of the level of deployment the world needs to see over the next 25 years. So what is holding the technology back? In a word, energy. Carbon Engineering’s existing technology requires an input of 366 kWh of electricity for every tonne of CO2 that is captured and sequestered. Using this technology, 10 billion tonnes of negative carbon emissions a year would demand more than twice as much electricity as every home in the United States combined.

Direct capture of atmospheric CO2 clearly has a long way to go, both in terms of innovation and deployment, before it can offer a viable solution to our need for negative carbon emissions. However, this blossoming industry can already fill a vital role as an input process to the synthesis of net zero-carbon fuels. There are countless engines, furnaces, and industrial machines that require fossil fuels. Even under the best circumstances, it will take decades for each and every one of those machines to be retired and replaced by fossil-fuel-free alternatives. In the meantime, direct air capture of CO2 can help supply clean liquid fuel to sectors of our economy that are not easily electrified.

Oscar Serpell

Associate Director of Academic Programming
Oscar Serpell oversees student engagement activities, new student programming, and alumni connections. He also participates in several key research projects at the center and also writes blog posts and policy digests on timely energy policy topics.