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Canadian company claims breakthrough in transforming CO2 into liquid fuel

08 June 2018

A Canadian company is making liquid fuel that is carbon neutral, low cost, and made by combining CO2 sucked from the air with hydrogen made by breaking down water through renewable energy. British Columbia-based Carbon Engineering is aiming to keep the costs below $100 for each tonne of CO2 removed from the atmosphere, against $600 and above up until now.

Proposed scaled-up plant - Image: Carbon Engineering
Proposed scaled-up plant - Image: Carbon Engineering

This is an engineering breakthrough on two fronts: A potentially cost-effective way to take CO2 out of the atmosphere to fight climate change and a potentially cost-competitive way to make hydrocarbon fuel that doesn’t add any additional CO2 to the atmosphere.

“This isn’t going to save the world from the impacts of climate change, but it’s going to be a big step on the path to a low-carbon economy,” said David Keith, a Harvard Professor of Applied Physics and founder of Carbon Engineering. Keith said capturing CO2 from the air and making fuel did not require any scientific breakthroughs as the technology already existed.

The company’s pilot project has been running since 2015 in Squamish, British Columbia, attached to a sawmill. An account of its operations was published on June 7 in the peer-reviewed energy journal Joule.

“Our paper shows the costs and engineering for a full-scale plant that could capture one million tons of CO2 a year,” Keith said.

Until now, the costs of CO2 removal by direct air capture were at least $600 per tonne, far too high to be commercially viable. But at $100 a tonne, in countries with a carbon price of $20 a tonne or more such as parts of Canada and Europe, the fuel produced becomes competitive with a barrel of oil.

The captured CO2 is combined with hydrogen, which is made through the electrolysis of water. While the process requires a lot of electricity, the pilot plant in Squamish uses renewable hydro power. The resulting synthetic fuel can be blended or used on its own as gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.

When burned it emits the same amount of CO2 that went into making it, so it is effectively carbon neutral.

The next step is to have a number of scaled-up plants producing hundreds of thousands of barrels of carbon-free fuel, to drive down costs further, much as solar and wind energy costs have plummeted over the past decades as scale has risen. As prices fall, more governments may get on board with the idea of pulling CO2 out of the air.

Carbon Engineering is building a larger plant, using low-cost renewable energy, that will produce 200 barrels of synthetic fuel a day. It should be operational in 2020, said Keith. The company is also looking to license its technology.

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