Direct Carbon Capture: The Dark Horse in the Fight Against Climate Change

Carbon Engineering Plant in British Columbia, Canada

7 years.

That’s all the time we have left before climate change becomes irreversible. Let me repeat that: 7 years. No matter who you are, this affects everyone and continues to be a global challenge. Currently, there are several solutions out there including renewables and nuclear energy, but there is a dark horse solution that could change things: Direct Carbon Capture.

The Greatest Challenge of the 21st Century

The transition from fossil fuels to green energy continues to be a political, economic, and social issue on multiple fronts. Despite the fact that the consequences of our consumption have long begun to show itself, not enough action is being taken. The global sea level has risen 8 inches in the last century and can displace millions of people in the coming decades. Oceans have become 30% more acidic. 30%. And according to NASA, between 1993 and 2019, Antarctica lost 148 billion tonnes of ice per year.

This is something our society needs to pay attention to. Governments around the world need to incentivize all sorts of programs and use all the tools in their arsenal to deter this issue. And this needs to happen on a global level. Soon.

Alternative energy continues to receive increasing public opinion and public accessibility as time goes on. This is amazing. But renewables still doesn’t completely solve one of the main aspects of global warming: carbon dioxide. Now you’re probably thinking, “But wait, doesn’t it put less carbon in the air, so you’re technically saving the planet?” Yes, that is true. Unfortunately, humanity is at a point where there is way too much carbon dioxide in the air and carbon capture may be our best bet to getting carbon neutral.

Another thing to point out is renewables don’t provide a constant supply of energy that can overtake the fossil fuels industry. I have no doubt that in the coming decade, problems such as energy storage and improved efficiency will be solved. However, we can’t just place all our hope in one technology.

from the IEA

For instance, when the medical world is faced with an incurable disease (i.e. cancer or terminal illnesses), do they just invest in developing and improving chemotherapy? No, they invest in research to develop different potential treatments.

In the same way, we have to acknowledge that climate change is a multifaceted issue and requires all the potential solutions possible. That doesn’t just apply to direct carbon capture, but also cultured meat and biomimetic design. Although these technologies have the potential to avert us from our current trajectory, they are underfunded and remain relatively obscure ideas.

Despite the improvements made to renewables, we can’t afford to put ourselves in such a vulnerable position. Even though the numbers have gone up, following the current trend, we will also need to invest our money into other possibilities.

Drum Roll Please…Direct Carbon Capture!

You would think the abbreviation would be DCC, but it’s actually CCS (stands for Carbon Capture and Sequestration). I know, you don’t care about that, but I digress. So the premise of carbon capture is to well, capture carbon dioxide from the air and either transfer it into a solid form that is buried deep within the Earth or recirculate it so it becomes net neutral carbon.

from Youtube; CNBC report

Sounds straight out of science fiction, right?

The process begins with large fans that draw air into a contraption called an air contactor. As this is happening, the air passes over plastic structures with a potassium hydroxide solution flowing over them. The solution will then bind to the carbon dioxide and confine it in the solution as a carbonate salt (created from reactions between aqueous carbon dioxide and a base). Following this comes a sequence of chemical processes where the salt is extracted from the solution and transformed into small pellets.

Carbon Engineering Carbon Capture Process

The amazing thing is the entire process is a closed-loop cycle! That basically means that the waste produced during manufacturing can be recycled to create new products. The pellets at the ‘end’ of the process can be used to create an alternative gasoline and when burned, it releases carbon dioxide. This makes the operation carbon-neutral since you aren’t adding more carbon dioxide nor are you removing any carbon dioxide. Burning the pellets leaves behind residue that can be recycled back into the system to recreate the liquid-binding solution.

As amazing as this innovation is, it isn’t getting the publicity or recognition that it deserves. We haven’t even begun talking about all the benefits yet.

Around the world, there are 51 CCS plants with 19 of them being fully operational. In fact, Carbon Engineering’s first large scale plant is being built in Texas and some of the possibilities they described were mind-blowing:

We’re actually expecting that [Texas Power Plant] would be a one megaton atmosphere CO2 plant. That’s the equivalent of 14 million trees in one plant.

Photo by Jason Leem on Unsplash

All the barriers that people believe are restricting such a technology from being developed or becoming commercially viable are steadily being broken down by Carbon Engineering. But wait. How much will this cost?

In fact, they mentioned that the starting point will be approximately $200 per ton of carbon dioxide. However, they expect that in the coming years the costs will gradually drop to $150 and possibly even lower.

Another thing to mention is that this technology is emissions free! Through their close-looped process, it allows for the recirculated carbon to have a net neutral effect. Additionally, the inputs into the machines come from renewable electricity, water, and natural gas. Even though natural gas is technically a fossil fuel, considering that the plant can capture and bury the CO2 underground, these operations could make up for the deficit.

Want to find out more? Check out their site: https://carbonengineering.com/

I’ll admit, I purposely put this section here because I know that this would probably come up. For those of you who are new to the conversation, nuclear energy is simultaneously a taboo technology and another potential solution that could quite literally save the planet.

There are two types of nuclear energy: Fission and Fusion. The one that gets a bad rep is fission, which is the process of breaking an atom into two. The released energy is then used to power homes, businesses, etc. However, a lot of nuclear plants are being closed down in light of Chernobyl and more recently, the Fukushima Daiichi Accident.

On the other hand, nuclear fusion is the complete opposite; it involves two atoms fused into one through immense pressure and heat. Unlike nuclear fission, it does not release any radioactive decay and could produce virtually unlimited power on Earth. However, that’s only if we can overcome the challenges of building a operational fusion reactor.

While nuclear does have the potential to completely revolutionize the world, considering our sharp deadline, we need to take use of the tools we have now.

In contrast, the technology for Direct Carbon Capture is already available. What we need to do is raise awareness and incentive for public use. We need to give Direct Carbon Capture a chance like we did with renewables and hopefully this push will usher a new phase in our quest to a green society.

Maggie Chua is an ambitious and passionate 16-year-old hoping to impact the world in the future. She is a chronic overthinker (at times) who enjoys writing about climate change, neuroscience, and self-improvement.

A 17-year-old who knows less about life than she thought she did. Fascinated by biology, specifically biocomputing, synthetic biology, and bioinformatics.