On Tuesday, XPRIZE announced a $20 million prize for a working carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technology that turns CO2 from the atmosphere into profitable products. Over the next few months, XPRIZE will be recruiting teams from around the globe to compete. In order to demonstrate the widest possible applicability of potential solutions, the competition will test technologies at a coal power plant and at a natural gas power plant. The winning team will be the one to convert the most CO2 emissions into the highest value products. But this is no high school science fair — to be competitive, teams must make the business case for their approach as well as minimize their use of energy, water, land, and other inputs that affect the environment.
CDR technology is in its infancy, but even as new methods are being tried out, there are already a few startups eager to both make a difference and make money. For example, as part of a demonstration project financed by Audi, Swiss-based startup Climeworks in April captured CO₂ from the air and supplied it to German firm Sunfire, which then recycled it into a carbon-neutral “e-diesel.” If synthetic carbon-neutral transportation fuels could be made on a large scale, CDR firms would have huge market opportunities.
In this light, at a panel on Climate Change and Civilization at the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit (BCLS) last week in New York City, Dr. Graciela Chichilnisky described the firm that she co-founded, Global Thermostat. This startup (of which she is CEO) is already commercially doing what the XPRIZE is aiming to foster — “turn carbon into cash,” as Chichilnisky puts it. Instead of capturing carbon and storing it underground indefinitely, which is proving difficult and expensive in trials, Global Thermostat will actually sell the CO₂ to firms that use it in their operations, thus turning a liability into an asset. By relying on the market for viability, “the idea is that it doesn’t depend on regulation,” she said.
But Chichilnisky both encourages and predicts the emergence of a global market for carbon, based on national limits and trading, which would enormously raise demand for CDR technology. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change admits that reducing CO₂ emissions no longer suffices to avoid catastrophic climate change, and insists that CDR be done on a massive scale. Establishing a global CO₂ market would be a bold and difficult accomplishment with so many nations involved, but there is growing momentum for it in the leadup to the December Paris climate change talks.
However, in part because the U.S. government has “not invested one cent” in R&D for CO₂ removal from the atmosphere, Chichilnisky said Global Thermostat lacks the budget to scale up its technology around the world. A July feature on three CDR startups (including Global Thermostat) in the Guardian concurred, adding that that they all “lack a practical business model. At this time, no one will pay them just to take CO₂ out of the air. And the market for CO₂ – which has a variety of uses, from injecting bubbles into fizzy drinks to recovering hard-to-get-oil from tapped-out wells – is limited.” But that was an understatement; according to Chichilnisky, the global CO₂ market is $1 trillion and thus quite appealing. Furthermore, at the BCLS, Chichilnisky said that Global Thermostat will use a crowd-funded franchising model for its technology, so that anyone who wants to use it anywhere in the world will be able to.
The particular features of Global Thermostat’s technology make it more scalable than most other CDR approaches. It’s designed to capture CO₂ from ambient air instead of from concentrated sources like a power plant chimney. Chichilnisky said their system “does so at remarkably low cost,” in part because it operates at a much lower temperature than other carbon capture technology. By using a relatively low-temperature steam, the system can be built anywhere there is an existing source of heat. “We can take the heat from solar plants and run our system. We can take the heat from a nuclear plant and run our system. We can put our system next to anything that has a source of low temperature heat; it doesn’t have to be a power plant,” she stated.
Global Thermostat has received investment from NRG and has sealed partnerships with Corning and Linde, reported AlterNet. By next year the firm should have two operational plants, with another two to come online in 2017.
Leaving the startup world for a moment, on the scientific end there have been other fascinating recent discoveries involving the capture of CO₂. Stuart Licht, leader of a research team from George Washington University, announced in August, “We have found a way to use atmospheric CO2 to produce high-yield carbon nanofibers. Such nanofibers are used to make strong carbon composites, such as those used in the Boeing Dreamliner, as well as in high-end sports equipment, wind turbine blades and a host of other products.” As an added plus, their system requires a comparatively small amount of energy to run. “Carbon nanofiber growth can occur at less than 1 volt at 750° C, which for example is much less than the 3 to 5 volts used in the 1,000° C industrial formation of aluminum,” Licht explained.
Licht claims that if the researchers were to scale up their operation to cover a physical area less than 10 percent the size of the Sahara Desert, it would be enough to cut the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels within 10 years. And they’d be supplying plenty of materials for future manufacturing while they’re at it.
Although their research is still in the experimental phase, the team is now “scaling up quickly” and looking at how it can produce nanofibers of a consistent size.
Another discovery with great potential is that old coffee grounds, which are widely available and cheap (since they are typically discarded), can be turned into an effective carbon sponge with less than a day of chemical processing. “The big thing is we are decreasing the fabrication time and we are using cheap materials. The waste material is free compared to all the metals and expensive organic chemicals needed in other processes – in my opinion this is a far easier way to go,” said Christian Kemp, an original researcher on the work at South Korea’s Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology. The researchers don’t fully understand how it works, but the modified coffee grounds’ methane absorption was found to be “exceptionally good.”
(Reforestation is an obvious way to complement these high-tech carbon capture methods, since forests naturally take in CO₂ from the air and release oxygen through photosynthesis—see Blouin News’ recent feature on reforestation.)
Whether or not these discoveries and business plans can be successfully scaled up in the real world, all of them are raising awareness for the need to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Likewise, the recently established Center for Carbon Removal at U.C. Berkeley aims to “accelerate the development of scalable, sustainable, economically-viable carbon removal solutions. And its ultimate goal is “to halt – and then reverse – climate change by restoring atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to sustainable levels.” According to its website, the center’s #RemoveOn campaign, for individuals and organizations seeking to get involved in CO₂ removal, is coming soon.
The ability to remove CO₂ does not mean that the world can keep emitting as much as it likes, because the scale of the current problem is enormous. But with sustained international effort, a combination of major CO₂ emissions reductions and large-scale CDR from the atmosphere may just be enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.