Sucking CO2 from the Air? It May Not be Too Good to be True

Sphere in Park

By Jonny Wakefield

October 22, 2015

Most plans to combat climate change involve keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But what if you could suck CO2 right out of the air instead?

A Canadian company says it’s developed technology that can do just that—albeit on a limited scale.

Calgary-based Carbon Engineering aims to commercialize “air-capture” plants—large towers of fans that sequester carbon dioxide and convert it into diesel fuel, Nature News reports.

Carbon Engineering’s demonstration model in Squamish, B.C. opened earlier this month and can process around a tonne of CO2 per day. Fans push the air through a tower containing a potassium hydroxide solution “which reacts with CO2 to form potassium carbonate” while “the remaining air, now containing less CO2, is released,” Nature explains.

The plant is powered by electricity, which in B.C. primarily comes from relatively clean hydroelectric sources. 

Unlike existing carbon-capture technologies which target carbon-dense sources like power plants, the air-capture plants target ambient sources like transportation, agriculture and buildings, which make up one third of global emissions, the Toronto Star reports.

Some speculate the technology might catch on in jurisdictions with carbon taxes.

David Keith, a Harvard physicist who developed the technology, said air capture is a “radical” and more effective alternative to carbon offsets.

“(It’s vital) to start thinking about radical new ideas and approaches to solving this problem,” he told the Star.

Like clean energy storage, the technology could prove a clean tech holy grail. However, its backers are careful not to overstate its role in combatting climate change.

“Air capture has been stuck in a catfight between one group of people saying it’s a silver bullet and one group saying it’s bullshit,” Keith told Nature. “The truth is it’s neither.” 

The project is backed by both Bill Gates and “oilsands financier” Murray Edwards, the Star notes.