Carbon dioxide as fuel may be the future

A Canadian startup is testing a system that sucks carbon dioxide from the air and converts it into fuel for cars and other vehicles.

Carbon Engineering’s technique combines several common manufacturing processes and will eventually be able to produce fuel for about $4 a gallon, according to David Keith, a Harvard University professor and co-founder of the company.

With oil prices climbing and U.S. gasoline following suit, that’s a level that could make this alternative fuel competitive. Many companies have developed ways to make fuel from plants, trees, sugarcane waste and other substances instead of petroleum, but the challenge has always been the cost. Carbon Engineering’s technique was developed specifically to address this.

“This isn’t some new clever piece of science or weird chemical we synthesized in some fancy lab,” Keith said in an interview. “The key thing that the company’s done from the beginning is focus on doing this in a way that is industrially scalable.”

The “direct air capture” process starts with common industrial cooling systems and a solution that draws carbon from the air, according to a paper published Thursday in the journal Joule. The carbon is combined with hydrogen to make motor fuel, through a technique used at pulp mills. The most expensive part is the electricity used to extract hydrogen from water.

While Carbon Engineering’s $4 price point is about 40 percent higher than fossil fuels, it may be competitive in markets like California that require cleaner low-carbon fuels, Keith said. The company has been sucking carbon dioxide from the air since 2015 and producing fuel at a pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia, since the end of last year.

Power plants and transportation are the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change.

Direct air capture of carbon dioxide could help governments meet pollution targets outlined in the Paris accords that otherwise are likely out of reach by just cutting emissions from power plants and cars, Keith said.

Steve Oldham, chief executive officer of Carbon Engineering, said he’s in talks with oil and natural gas companies interested in using his fuel in markets with carbon restrictions. A plant that can produce 2,000 barrels of fuel a day would cost about $300 million and take about 3 years to build.

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