NEWS Carbon capture: boom or boondoggle?

For US News & World Report, click here.

by Alan Neuhauser

WHEN A CANADIAN STARTUP announced this spring that it would soon begin build­ing a new type of facil­ity that could remove car­bon diox­ide from the air, it sparked con­sid­er­able fanfare.

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Head­lines declared the project, which this spring won $68 mil­lion in financ­ing, a “poten­tial solu­tion to global warm­ing.” The design, the brain­child of an acclaimed Har­vard physics pro­fes­sor and Time mag­a­zine “Hero of the Envi­ron­ment,” won back­ing from Bill Gates.

The­o­ret­i­cally, such a facil­ity could work vir­tu­ally any­where, extract­ing harm­ful green­house gases from the air on a mas­sive scale. But the con­cept was embraced early on by oil com­pa­nies, which quickly saw the pos­si­bil­ity of lib­er­at­ing the drilling and extrac­tion process from com­plaints about the emis­sions it gen­er­ates. In fact, the plant under con­struc­tion is being built in the heart of Texas oil coun­try, in part­ner­ship with a sub­sidiary of one of the largest oil firms in the U.S., Occi­den­tal Petro­leum. Occi­den­tal was one of three oil con­glom­er­ates to make siz­able invest­ments in the company.

The idea behind the facil­ity, called car­bon cap­ture, isn’t new: It’s been in use for years at a hand­ful of coal-​​fired power plants, oil and gas pro­cess­ing facil­i­ties and fer­til­izer plants in the U.S. The old­est oper­at­ing site began vac­u­um­ing CO2 from a nat­ural gas plant in 1972. Trees, which suck up CO2, could also be described as engag­ing in nat­ural car­bon capture.

What makes the Texas project dif­fer­ent, though, is its promise to remove car­bon diox­ide through “direct air cap­ture:” Rather than draw­ing CO2 from a smoke­stack, it instead pulls the gas from the open air regard­less of loca­tion or even the gas’s con­cen­tra­tion. Car­bon Engi­neer­ing, the com­pany behind the project, says that with lit­tle more than off-​​the-​​shelf industrial-​​scale fans, fil­ters and com­mon chem­i­cals, it’s solved a chal­lenge long seen as beyond the reach of engi­neers or any rea­son­able budget.

The idea of pulling CO2 out of the air has been around for 40–50 years, but what’s the chal­lenge is doing it at scale in a cost-​​effective man­ner,” says Steve Old­ham, the CEO of Car­bon Engi­neer­ing. “Hope­fully we have the answer to that.”

In gen­eral, air cap­ture and stor­age on a mean­ing­ful scale is a far tougher prob­lem than CO2 cap­ture at power plants and indus­trial facil­i­ties,” says Edward Rubin, an envi­ron­men­tal engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor at Carnegie Mel­lon University’s Wilton E. Scott Insti­tute for Energy Inno­va­tion. “Much harder to find the nee­dle in a haystack that’s 300 times big­ger – hence, much more costly.”

Another pro­fes­sor put it more bluntly. “A lot of num­bers being thrown out there today are just unbe­liev­able,” says Howard Her­zog, a senior research engi­neer at the MIT Engi­neer Ini­tia­tive. “From what I’ve read, I’ve seen so many red flags that I’m totally shocked.”

Car­bon Engi­neer­ing insists that its tech­nol­ogy works. The car­bon diox­ide its Texas plant col­lects will be injected and stored under­ground, mak­ing the entire loop carbon-​​negative, the com­pany says. By its cal­cu­la­tions, the Texas plant will remove 500 kilo­tons of CO2 per year from the atmos­phere – the equiv­a­lent of plant­ing and nour­ish­ing some 20 mil­lion trees.

Basi­cally you have a carbon-​​neutral fos­sil fuel,” Old­ham says. “We have extracted from the air, in advance, an amount of CO2 that is more than the CO2 pro­duced when you burn that crude.”

The design is “decep­tively straight­for­ward,” he says. The CO2 binds with a liq­uid chem­i­cal, the mix­ture then pushed through a fil­ter. Car­bon Engi­neer­ing has been test­ing the approach since 2015, when a pilot facil­ity at its head­quar­ters out­side Van­cou­ver began pulling up to a met­ric ton per day of CO2 from the air. The planned site in Texas will aim to cap­ture 500,000 met­ric tons a year, the com­pany says – and, with expan­sions, per­haps as much as 1 million.

I actu­ally used to work in satel­lites, so I can actu­ally say it’s not rocket sci­ence,” Old­ham says. “Our tech­nol­ogy has always been designed for scal­a­bil­ity. It’s a ques­tion of repeat­ing the same plant many times.”

The goal, he says, is to buy time: To stave off the worst con­se­quences of cli­mate change as elec­tric vehi­cles make inroads and solar pan­els, wind tur­bines and – more recently – bat­tery stor­age expand and replace the coal, gas and oil plants that remain entrenched in the world’s elec­tric grids.

We are not in a posi­tion as a soci­ety today to move off fos­sil fuels. So from an envi­ron­men­tal per­spec­tive, we think this is worth doing,” Old­ham says.

The idea has found out­side sup­port. In a study this week in the jour­nal Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, for exam­ple, a team of Euro­pean sci­en­tists con­cluded that while tech­nolo­gies like those being devel­oped by Car­bon Engi­neer­ing should “be devel­oped and deployed along­side, rather than instead of, other mit­i­ga­tion options,” they’re still worth pursuing.

But con­cern remains that such tech­nol­ogy could actu­ally enable the con­tin­ued use of fos­sil fuels rather than serve as a bridge to phas­ing them out. Occi­den­tal also plans to har­ness the gas cap­tured by its new plant for what’s known as “enhanced oil recov­ery,” where CO2 is injected into deposits to make the company’s drilling oper­a­tions even more pro­duc­tive. The com­pany is the biggest employer of enhanced oil recov­ery in the U.S.

There is also the issue of scale: Humans last year gen­er­ated a record 36.2 giga­tons of car­bon diox­ide – each giga­ton 1,000 times the size of just one of the 500 kilo­tons that the Car­bon Engi­neer­ing plant aims to remove. Remov­ing the CO2 from just 2018 alone would require plant­ing close to a tril­lion trees. The Car­bon Engi­neer­ing plant, by com­par­i­son, would need to be repli­cated some 40,000 times – and even then, only if car­bon emis­sions lev­eled off, which is far from certain.

CO2 neg­a­tive – yeah, right. It’s a big sham … There’s no proof that there’s actu­ally any­thing cap­tured by anything.”

Am I say­ing we should build 40,000 of our plants? God, I hope not, because that will mean we’ve failed in a lot of other mea­sures,” Old­ham says. But, he con­tin­ues, “it’s less than there are water treat­ment plants, it’s less than there are power sta­tions – it’s not totally ridicu­lous think­ing about build­ing that many. I hope that we don’t have to, but if we do, our com­pany wants to have that tech­nol­ogy ready.”

Other experts insist that no mat­ter how many plants Car­bon Engi­neer­ing licenses or builds, the com­pany will never accom­plish what it claims – and, in fact, may sim­ply gen­er­ate more emis­sions. Car­bon removal, at least as pro­posed by Car­bon Engi­neer­ing, as well as by two com­peti­tors in Alabama and Switzer­land, remains firmly in the realm of alchemy, they argue, with one pro­fes­sor com­par­ing the company’s claims and result­ing fan­fare to Ther­a­nos, the startup that attracted bil­lions of dol­lars in invest­ment and press atten­tion by claim­ing to remake blood-​​testing, but whose founders were later indicted on fed­eral fraud charges.

Car­bon Engineering’s planned project, he con­tends, sim­ply will not accom­plish what the com­pany has claimed: It requires so much energy – gen­er­ated by burn­ing nat­ural gas – that any­where from a third to three quar­ters of the CO2 the plant cap­tures will effec­tively end up back into the atmos­phere, Jacob­son says. The claim that CO2 injected under­ground will remain there, mean­while, has yet to be proven at scale, he argues.

There’s no proof that there’s actu­ally any­thing cap­tured by any­thing,” Jacob­son says. “It’s a gim­mick that actu­ally does not work.”

Car­bon Engi­neer­ing main­tains that its plans call for cap­tur­ing any emis­sions from the nat­ural gas plant. But while other aca­d­e­mics have taken issue with Jacobson’s math, but they agree that his con­clu­sions are correct.

On this point we agree: The num­bers as far as how much Car­bon Engi­neer­ing and the Swiss com­pany can cap­ture – they are wrong,” says Dan Kam­men, a physi­cist and pro­fes­sor of energy at the Uni­ver­sity of California-​​Berkeley.

Their assump­tions about how much energy they’re going to need are way under­es­ti­mated. I don’t even think they under­stand they have a prob­lem. I don’t think they’ll ever get the com­mer­cial plant to work.”

Car­bon Engineering’s planned Texas site wouldn’t be the first ambi­tious, large-​​scale car­bon cap­ture facil­ity in the U.S. In 2010, South­ern Com­pany, one of the country’s largest elec­tric util­i­ties, broke ground for a new coal-​​fired power plant in Mis­sis­sippi, one that would inte­grate car­bon cap­ture to prove the via­bil­ity of so-​​called “clean coal.” Seven years later, the Kem­per project was $5 bil­lion over bud­get, the sub­ject of a Secu­ri­ties and Exchange Com­mis­sion inves­ti­ga­tion and mul­ti­ple law­suits, and South­ern Com­pany pulled the plug. The plant now burns nat­ural gas.

They spent $7 bil­lion to prove them­selves – and this is not a startup com­pany, this is one of the two biggest util­i­ties in the U.S. They have their own engi­neer­ing force. But they so over­es­ti­mated this, they lost bil­lions of dol­lars,” Her­zog says. “It’s easy to fool your­self if you want to believe and you don’t want to take a hard engi­neer­ing look at it.”

The Kem­per project, he points out, was designed to be about 220 times larger than a pilot ver­sion of the planned carbon-​​capture facil­ity. The Car­bon Engi­neer­ing site, by con­trast, is a 2,500-fold leap.

These are giant jumps,” Her­zog says. “So, as an engi­neer – this is crazy, alright?”

Car­bon Engi­neer­ing hasn’t put a price tag on its Texas project; a spokes­woman says that “financ­ing for the project will likely be in the hun­dreds of mil­lions.” The com­pany mean­while says that it’s aware that such a large leap in scale from its pilot plant to the one planned for Texas presents sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges. The study in Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­cluded that scale – not cost – prob­a­bly presents the biggest hur­dle to the technology’s success.

Every­body acknowl­edges that risk, includ­ing Car­bon Engi­neer­ing. We don’t hide from that risk at all,” Old­ham says. He vig­or­ously dis­puted the pro­fes­sors’ other cri­tiques. “We’ve refined and updated and opti­mized our process sig­nif­i­cantly. To my knowl­edge, none of these peo­ple have come and actu­ally talked to the com­pany. Come and invite them, they’re all invited to our facil­ity, they can come and see our sys­tems work­ing, we have pro­duced finan­cial mod­els … the due dili­gence that we’ve done – come and look at it all. There’s noth­ing to hide here.”


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