A story in The Atlantic entitled “Climate Change Can Be Stopped by Turning Air Into Gasoline” by Robinson Meyer tells how a team of Harvard University scientists together with the company Carbon Engineering developed two chemical processes, one to extract CO2 from the air relatively cheaply, and the other to convert that CO2 into gasoline, and formed a company to do both.The story offers an abbreviated explanation of the very complicated technique of removing CO₂ and how scientists hope to have an industrial-scale version of a carbon removal plant by 2021. The eventual goal is to construct a huge, industrial-scale network of carbon scrubbers that would remove greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere.
CE has proudly developed an industrially scalable Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology, which can remove CO₂ directly from the atmosphere at an affordable price point
Our take here at ClimateYou is that this is yet another carbon capture scheme. What’s different with this one is that the CO2, once captured, isn’t stored — it’s used to make more gasoline, which when burned in a car, factory, or electricity plant, will emit more CO2. But it’s called carbon neutral because no new fossil fuels are being combusted nor mined. The Harvard academics behind the start-up company Carbon Engineering created to exploit the process see a niche for their product in those parts of the energy industry hardest to decarbonize: steel mills, cement plants, and long-distance air travel.They claim that their end product is carbon neutral, because while burning it still emits CO2, other CO2 was taken out of the air to make it. Pure sophistry.The cost for this carbon-neutral fuel is projected at $100-$200 per ton of CO2, or 1.00-$2.50 per gallon. But their engineered gasoline will cost more than regular gasoline, so it can’t really compete with even regular petrol, much less energy from solar or wind. In a few special circumstances, it may have a market for a few years, but demand for fossil fuel energy is going down, as wind and solar ramp up and EVs start replacing ICE cars. As those two transformations proceed, the price of oil will fall, making the engineered fuel less and less viable. The startup needs either to find a use and a buyer for the CO2 they extract or someone to pay to store it underground. Forget the second process of turning the CO2 into gasoline, a dirty fuel. That has only a very limited future. Granted, no new fossil fuel is being burned, but we aren’t going to end climate change by burning more CO2.
This method is cheap compared to other methods of capturing carbon. The founders are not averse to storing the CO2 they capture deep in the earth, but haven’t found a funder. Their process works; it’s not theoretical. The cost projections are based on several years of operating a pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia. A network of such plants would be needed to make a significant impact on climate change. Is there a place and a time for this technology? Maybe, if the costs come in at the low end of projections, and if segments of the energy and transportation industries find it cheaper to use carbon-neutral fuel rather than low-carbon fuel (an unlikely proposition given the plunging prices of wind and solar energy) where that is possible, or if it’s not possible (long-haul electric planes are some years away), whether the added cost of carbon-neutral fuel is worth the opprobrium sure to rebound on greenhouse gas emitters. However, success of the venture is predicated on approximately constant oil prices, which are expected to fall by 2035 as the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) makes inroads into internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. How many companies or state entities would pay a premium for petrol that still trapped temperature-raising heat and polluted the air but had a cleaner pedigree? Only a very few. If I were a venture capitalist getting a pitch to invest in Carbon Engineering, I wouldn’t bite, unless they could cut costs way back and then either monetize the storage of CO2 or get someone (the oil companies?) to pay for it. The carbon-capture half of its process, the removal half, makes sense and has possibilities. The gasoline-production half doesn’t. Sorry, The Atlantic, it was an attention-grabbing headline, but climate change can’t be stopped by turning CO2 into gasoline. To do that we have to stop emitting carbon AND take carbon out of the air.