[Video] A Canadian cleantech startup is sucking the CO2 directly from atmosphere and turning it into fuels

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Senior process engineer Jane Ritchie holds solid calcium carbonate pellets that were formed by precipitating captured carbon dioxide at Calgary-based Carbon Engineering's first direct air capture plant in Squamish, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press )
Senior process engineer Jane Ritchie holds solid calcium carbonate pellets that were formed by precipitating captured carbon dioxide at Calgary-based Carbon Engineering’s first direct air capture plant in Squamish, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press )

Founded by Harvard climate scientist David Keith and backed by a series of big name investors including Bill Gates and oil sands financier Murray Edwards, Carbon Engineering– a Canada-based cleantech startup company has spent several years turning academic research into technology that can suck CO2 directly from the air and turn it into net zero emission fuels when combined with hydrogen.

Carbon Engineering is not the only company in the world that is trying to solve the CO2 problems – e.g. there are carbon capture and storage plants that tackle the CO2 poured out of factory smokestacks and deposit it in an underground geological formation. Carbon Engineering, however, deals with the CO2 that is emitted from transportation, buildings and agriculture using the ‘direct air capture plant’. “Emissions from sources you just cannot otherwise capture,” Carbon Engineering’s CEO Adrian Corless says.

While the test facility has so far only extracted 10 tonnes of CO2 from air since its launch in June, their $200 million commercial plant, which is under construction has the capacity to capture 1 million tonnes of CO2 per day – equivalent of taking 100 cars off the road each year. “It’s still a pilot-scale plant”, Corless said, “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.”

The plant works by sucking air into a module where CO2 is absorbed by a liquid solution and turned into pellets of calcium carbonate. This is done by extracting CO2 from the air using a giant complex of fans, and combining this with liquid hydrogen split from water. The pellets obtained are then heated to 800 or 900 degrees Celsius and break down, releasing pure carbon.  The absorbed CO2 is released from the carbonate solution using a technology from the paper industry already proven in large scale, and the liquid solution goes back to the module for recycle use. The CO2 can be subsequently combined with hydrogen to produce hydrocarbons, such as jet fuels.

Upon the completion of the commercial plant in 2016 or 2017, this method should be able to produce up to 400 liters of gasoline or diesel per day. These ready-to-use fuels require no transportation infrastructure.

“The nice thing about the technology is that there are no real limitations for it to ultimately, in theory, displace all of the existing fossil-based transportation fuels,” Corless suggested. Like most of the startups, there are uncertainties ahead of the road, but the huge potential of this technology is exciting.

The pilot plant could be a  game changer in terms of reducing the global carbon footprint and it could make the mountain town a hub for green technology in the process, said Mayor Patricia Heintzman.

“When you start to bring in people who are problem solvers and entrepreneurs who see opportunity when it’s there and aren’t blind to it, that’s an exciting place for a community to be. You can really grow on that. I think it’s great when smart innovators are coming into a community. That’s where your future is.”” she said.

Source: CBC news, ScienceAlert.com