What is carbon capture? Eric Toone, investor in Gates’ company, explains

06 January 2022, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Wismar: Smoke rises from the chimneys of the industrial wood processing plants in the seaport of Wismar. Photo: Jens Büttner / dpa-Zentralbild / ZB (Photo by Jens Büttner / picture alliance via Getty Images)

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Eric Toone is a prime technical investor for Bill Gates” climate technology investment company, Revolutionary energy adventures. She is one of two people who must sign any agreement to be funded, and she has signed five investments in carbon capture technology, four of which have been publicly announced.

Carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels is a primary source of human-caused climate change. Carbon capture is a set of methods, some time-tested, others experimental, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by removing them at source or from the atmosphere. (The term “carbon” is often used as a shorthand for carbon dioxide, CO2, in discussions of capture and sequestration technology.)

Toone understands the arguments against carbon capture technology, but is optimistic nonetheless.

A big fear is that carbon capture technology presents a “moral hazard,” he told CNBC in a video conversation. If carbon capture technology becomes affordable, companies may not decarbonise their operations – they will simply continue to emit and then extract carbon emitted from the atmosphere, effectively trampling water in the race for emissions.

Instead, critics say, companies need to focus on decarbonising their operations by using renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency.

Toone thinks this is a false dichotomy.

“It has to be all of the above,” Toone told CNBC.

This is also what the most recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states.

Removal of carbon dioxide is “necessary” to “offset the” difficult to abate “residual emissions” and is “also an essential element 34 of the scenarios that limit warming to 1.5 ° C or probably below 2 ° C by 2100, ” says the technical summary of the report.

Who pays?

For a technology to scale, however, there must be demand.

It is easy to see the economic demand for low-carbon alternatives to existing products. Wind and solar can be cheaper than fossil fuels for generating electricity, electric vehicles can eliminate costly trips to the gas station, and improving industrial processes and building efficiency saves not just energy but money.

So who will pay for the removal of carbon dioxide and why?

“That’s the $ 64,000 question,” Toone told CNBC.

Right now, the carbon capture market is voluntary, which means companies participate if they want to, not under any federal requirements or regulations. That market has seen some green shoots lately. For example, in mid-April, the Stripe online payment technology provider he has partnered with several other tech companies, including Google’s parent company alphabet and parent of Facebook A halfto commit nearly $ 1 billion to stimulate the carbon capture market.

Stripe would like to see other companies increase their initial funding pool, but also recognizes that the industry will almost certainly need government intervention. This could take the form of a carbon price, by subsidizing the carbon removal that private companies do or by funding research, Stripe’s Florian Maganza told CNBC.

But for now, the demand side is extremely uncertain. There is some demand from the industry: the carbonated beverage industry, for example, pays up to $ 1,000 per ton for carbon dioxide in some markets, while the oil industry pays around $ 35 per ton for carbon dioxide. carbon dioxide to be used for greater oil recovery, explains Toone. But overall, the carbon capture market assumes that regulation or government incentives will increase over time as the problem of climate change becomes more evident and its management becomes a political necessity.

“As long as society does not quote carbon, no, there is no way to make money from carbon capture other than through voluntary markets,” Toone said. “It’s the Wild West”.

However, about 25 other countries have some sort of carbon market.

“The biggest – by far – is China,” Toone told CNBC.

“The Chinese system focuses on the energy sector first and is based on emissions per unit of production. Individual producers will provide information on energy production and emissions, then they will receive credit based on historical production and then pay or receive credit depending on whether are above or below their allowance “.

The chemical method: hard and expensive

The uncertain question is not the only challenge. Large-scale carbon capture is also technically challenging and expensive to accomplish.

Generally speaking, there are two main components in carbon capture technology. First, there is the capture: it must be extracted from the air. Then, there’s the sequestration piece: once you’ve captured the carbon, you have to put it somewhere.

Direct carbon capture can reduce carbon emissions where they are produced, but it is difficult to scale because each plant has to be adapted on a custom basis. It also does nothing to remove the carbon dioxide that has already been emitted from other sources over the past 150 years.

To remove carbon that is already in the atmosphere, you have to rely on plant photosynthesis, planting trees, for example, or chemical technology.

With chemical carbon capture, the air must pass through a technical apparatus so that carbon dioxide can bind to any chemicals used. Pumping enough air through that technical apparatus takes a lot of energy.

“When carbon dioxide is only present at 400 parts per million in the air, it means I have to pass an absolutely huge amount of air over those structures to capture it,” said Toone.

To capture one million tons, or one megaton, of carbon dioxide in a year, an operation would have to move 46,000 cubic meters of air per second, and that assumes it captures 100 percent of the carbon dioxide in the air, Toone said. to CNBC, according to his own calculations. More realistically, you would only be capturing half of the carbon dioxide, which means you would have to move more than 100,000 cubic meters of air per second.

And that’s just for a single megaton.

The US government has a goal of removing more gigatons, or a billion tons, of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2050 and storing it “on a long-term basis” for less than $ 100 per ton. The Department of Energy calls this target its own Carbon negative ground hit.

For the carbon capture project to be successful, the amount of carbon emissions created to produce the energy to drive the carbon capture machinery must be less than the carbon dioxide captured by the contraption, otherwise the entire effort is zero. .

“Yeah, the numbers are starting to get pretty scary,” Toone said.

Two companies leading the charge, according to Toone, are carbon engineering Other climate systems. (Breakthrough isn’t an investor either.)

The Climeworks factory with its fans in front of the collector, suck in ambient air and release it, as on 11 October 2021, CO2 is seen extensively purified through the fans at the Hellisheidi power plant near Reykjavik. – The Climeworks factory is housed in ICELAND containers similar to those used in shipping are stacked in pairs, 10 meters (33 feet) high. The fans in front of the collector suck in the ambient air and release it, largely purified by CO2, through fans at the rear. (Photo by Halldor KOLBEINS / AFP) (Photo by HALLDOR KOLBEINS / AFP via Getty Images)

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Currently, Climeworks is capable of capturing carbon dioxide at a cost of between $ 600 and $ 800 per ton, Judith HebekeuserClimaworks communications manager told CNBC. That cost is expected to drop to between $ 250 and $ 300 per ton by 2030 if Climeworks operates on a million-ton scale. And if the industry matures as expected, costs are expected to drop from $ 100 to $ 200 per tonne.

Toone says the US government’s goal of $ 100 a ton is not unreasonable.

“The cost of solar has dropped 300 times since 1975,” noted Toone. “It absolutely passes the giggle test,” Toone said.

Once carbon has been removed from the atmosphere, there are two basic ways of storing it: biological and geological. Biological carbon sequestration occurs when carbon from the atmosphere is stored in plants, soil, wood or even the ocean. Geological carbon sequestration is the process of storing carbon dioxide underground. To do this, companies pump carbon dioxide into underground caves, or combine it with a liquid and pump it into porous rock formations where CO2 can “mineralize” over time.

At its first commercial carbon removal facility in Iceland, Climeworks takes the carbon dioxide it removes from the air and passes it on to a partner company. correction of carbohydrates, which takes the carbon and injects it into groundwater to react with the basaltic rock. Over the next two years, the carbon turns into solid rock, “locking it up for hundreds of thousands of years,” Hebekeuser told CNBC. Although permanent storage is the main focus of Climeworks, it is open to other options, such as products recycled from carbon or to produce renewable fuels.

The verification question

There are other, mostly non-chemical, methods that “cost a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of that $ 100 per tonne,” Toone said, but verification is a big deal for many of them.

Tree growth is one example. But the trees die, they are burned by forest fires, they are cut for timber.

Companies like pachamapart of Breakthrough’s investment portfolio, they are working to verify the amount of carbon captured in an acre of forest.

Another example is using the natural chemical calcium silicate, putting it on the beach and leaving it there. Calcium silicate reacts with carbon dioxide in ocean water to produce calcium carbonate, which is an insoluble solid that sinks to the ocean floor. The ocean will continue to extract more carbon dioxide from the air to stay in balance, according to Toone, who was a chemistry professor at Duke University for nearly three decades before entering Breakthrough.

But without verification, these methods won’t take off.

“We live in absurdly cynical times,” Toone told CNBC. If there is a sense that carbon capture is a scam, then people will not pay at all to capture carbon. “We have to bring society along with this. So I think validation and verification are extremely important.”