Why not turn more carbon dioxide into fuel?

By Doug Moss and Roddy Scheer
It is possible to capture carbon dioxide.
It is possible to capture carbon dioxide.
Dear EarthTalk: If we already know how to capture carbon dioxide and turn it into fuel, why aren’t we doing more of it?     
-- M.N. Daly, Springfield, Massachusetts

    With recent measurements detecting the highest levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in human history—and experts warning we have less than a dozen years to turn around our profligate emissions to avoid cataclysmic changes—we must ratchet down our carbon footprint. One obvious solution, which has been slow out of the starting gate, is scrubbing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air and recycling that gas to produce carbon-neutral fuels to power our machines.
    We have known how to capture carbon dioxide from the air at large scale since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that environmentalists started looking at so-called “direct air capture” as one of the tools for dealing with the greenhouse effect. Since then, researchers have been scrambling to come up with the most efficient ways to capture carbon dioxide.
    Massachusetts-based startup Carbon Engineering was formed in 2011  to produce and eventually commercialize direct air capture technology that can use captured carbon dioxide to make fuel at costs competitive with conventional fossil fuels. After several years of research and development and implementation of its technologies at a pilot plant in British Columbia, the company has been able to get the costs of capturing carbon dioxide down to about $100 per ton—six times less than previous models predicted was possible.
     But it’s what happens next that has environmental advocates jazzed. Carbon Engineering’s solar-powered electrolyzer splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then combines the hydrogen with previously captured carbon dioxide to make carbon-neutral gasoline, diesel or even jet fuel. Assuming a $100 per ton cost for capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide, the company can produce these eco-friendly fuels for about $1 per liter, which is only marginally more expensive than their fossil-fuel counterparts. The hope is that costs will drop  below fossil fuels as demand grows and facilities scale up. Also, as more states follow California’s lead in requiring increasingly significant portions of their fuel mixes to come from “low-carbon” sources, demand for these green alternative fuels will rise and prices will likely drop even more. 
    Research and development like this isn’t limited to the U.S. Spain’s SUN-to-LIQUID project uses unique solar concentration technologies that combine sunlight with oxygen and atmospheric carbon dioxide to get three times as much energy out of the sun’s rays as existing solar “reactors.” The resulting “synthesis fuel” combines hydrogen and carbon monoxide and could be used to power vehicles or any type of engine equipped to deal with it.
    And a team of Swiss and Norwegian scientists wants to put such technologies to use on millions of solar-powered floating islands at sea that could suck carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into fuel without taking up any land or bothering human neighbors. Such a plan may seem far-fetched, but we need to be open to new ideas if we are going to turn the tide on climate change before we reach the point of no return.


     Researchers want "carbon law" to save planet

    This column was reprinted with permission. EarthTalk is produced by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.