A Canadian company says it has developed cost-effective technology to suck carbon dioxide from the air and use it to make fuel.

New research released by British Columbia-based Carbon Engineering shows that its extraction method of direct air capture (DAC) can capture carbon for under $100 a tonne, a major advance on the current price of around $600 per tonne.

Clean technology is a major industry in British Columbia, accounting for nearly 30 per cent of Canada’s cleantech companies. More than 270 clean-technology companies have made British Columbia home, taking advantage of the provinces targeted cleantech incentives and support programmes and core of knowledge, with 25 world-class educational institutions and several centres of excellence supporting green research and technology development.

Set up in 2009 with funding from Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Canada oil sands financier Norman Murray Edwards, Carbon Engineering’s pilot plant has been running since 2015, capturing about one tonne of CO2 per day. Air is sucked into a modified cooling tower with fans, where it comes into contact with a liquid that reacts with the CO2. After several processing steps, a purer stream of CO2 is extracted.

The company says its immediate goal is to produce use the extracted gas as a key raw material for synthetic liquid fuel. It is currently making around one barrel a day by combining the pure CO2 with hydrogen derived from water. David Keith, professor of applied physics at Harvard University and a founder of Carbon Engineering told BBC News the technology was “a real step forward”. “If these aren’t renewable fuels, what are?”

Steve Oldham of Carbon Engineering says the project uses components off the rack, hence the reduced cost for carbon capture. “We’re tapping into existing industrial equipment and then defining a new process and applying some unique chemistry to it.”

Carbon Engineering’s fuel currently costs about 25 per cent more than gasoline made from oil. Oldham said work is being done to reduce both that cost and the carbon footprint of the fuel. Because the plant currently uses some natural gas, by the time the fuel it produces has been burned it has released a half-tonne of carbon dioxide for every tonne removed from the air. That gives it a carbon footprint 70 per cent lower than a fossil fuel, Oldham said. If it ran on wind or solar-generated electricity, the fuel would be almost carbon neutral.

As well as the potential to deliver clean synthetic fuels, using inputs of only air, water, and renewable power, another benefit of making fuel from air is energy independence, Oldham adds, meaning countries would not be dependent on oil.

Carbon Engineering’s next step is to build a full-scale commercial plant, and it is currently looking for both very cheap solar or wind power, and investors.

(via The Canadian Press, BBC News, Trade and Invest BC)


Featured image: An artist’s impression of what the future extraction plant could look like, picture from Carbon Engineering