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CO2-sucking factories could anchor a new, clean economy

Since they can be placed anywhere, the engines of the growing carbon-capture industry could help create more jobs across the globe.

CO2-sucking factories could anchor a new, clean economy
[Photo: Climeworks]

In the beginning of October, in the small Italian town of Troia, a pilot plant started sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and turning it into carbon-neutral fuel. In Squamish, Canada, another pilot plant is doing the same thing. In Switzerland, a third plant is capturing CO2 to sell to a nearby greenhouse.

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Run by two startups at the vanguard of the “direct air capture” industry, the plants use technology that can also be used for negative emissions–capturing carbon from the air to bury underground–something that the world will have to do at a large scale to avoid the worst global warming. (Climeworks, one of the startups, is already working in Iceland to capture CO2 that is injected underground and turned into stone.) But they also point to another opportunity. Because the level of atmospheric CO2 is equally high everywhere, capturing it and turning it into products can potentially bring back jobs to areas that have lost other industry.

[Photo: Carbon Engineering]
“The beauty of direct air capture is you can build it really anywhere,” says Louise Charles, a senior representative for Climeworks, the company running the pilot plant in Italy and commercial plant in Switzerland. (Capturing CO2 from existing power plants could also help power industry where they’re already built.)

A plant in Ohio or Turkey or Palau could capture CO2 to make a variety of products, from plastics to fuel. A shoe company, for example, could use it to make the materials for a new shoe, says Julio Friedmann, a senior research scholar at the Center for Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and former Obama administration official who has studied direct air capture for years. “You could have a manufacturing base in the heartland, in small rural America, making whatever the community needs, potentially manufacturing it for sale nearby.”

[Photo: Carbon Engineering]
The first product from the nascent industry is likely to be fuel (the liquid fuel works in any current gas engine). “Our near term business plan focuses around what economic value can we get out of atmospheric CO2, and the answer is you have to make a product that values carbon and for which there is a market, and that today is fuel,” says Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering, which expects to finish raising financing for its first commercial plant over the next few months.

A study earlier this year found that the cost of capturing carbon could be far less than previous estimates, at less than $100 a ton. It’s still much pricier than a barrel of crude oil, though the company expects to reach cost parity over time. But even now, carbon pricing in place in some regions makes fuel economically viable. Airlines will be able pay the same amount as they would for normal jet fuel, while Carbon Engineering can recoup the additional cost through a carbon credit or carbon tax program.

If similar policies existed for plastic–a penalty for plastic made from fossil fuels and an incentive for plastic made from atmospheric CO2–that industry could also shift, Oldham says. “If that was the case for plastics, then the plastics industry will be phoning us up straight away saying, ‘We want to buy your CO2.’ It’s really a question of policy to try and direct whatever dollars governments choose to put into decarbonizing.”

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Newlight, a California-based company, already makes a plastic called AirCarbon from emissions captured at landfills and energy facilities; similar products could eventually be made directly from air. A startup called C2CNT is making nanofibers from captured carbon, which can be made into strong, lightweight carbon fiber bikes, wind turbine blades, and other products. Others are working to recycle CO2 into methanol, which can be made into medicine or perfume. Another startup turns CO2 into fish feed. Others turn CO2 into stronger, cheaper concrete that could store emissions at a massive scale. “There’s a whole host of products that can be made from CO2,” says Charles.

One startup, called Opus 12, that plans to capture CO2 emissions (from sources such as power plants, at least initially) and turn them into cost-competitive chemical products. “They will be able to make chemicals and fuels anywhere, anytime, as long as you can give them CO2 and electrons,” Friedmann says. “They have a business, and that’s where the world is heading right now.”

[Photo: Climeworks]
For plants making products other than fuel to become widespread quickly, policies will likely need to change to help make it more economically competitive. But a “climate-friendly” label on products could also help. “I kind of think of that as a bit like organic food,” says Oldham. “When you go to the supermarket there’s an organic section, and people do pay more for organic or animal-friendly products. I would love, through visibility and through knowledge, that the general public starts to demand carbon-friendly products across the board. There’s nothing like public demand to create a change in both government policy and company behavior.”

Corporations could also push suppliers to start sourcing products made from captured carbon. “I think what is more fruitful is when companies like Walmart or Apple just say, ‘Hey, 2020 is coming, our supply chains are going to look different,'” says Friedmamn. If suppliers have to figure out how to cut their carbon footprint or be dropped, they’ll be motivated to use new materials.

[Photo: Carbon Engineering]
A “new carbon economy,” where CO2 is used to manufacture products locally, using local clean energy, is now possible, Friedmann says. There will likely be challenges from existing industry, which is used to operating at scale rather than in a distributed network. But it’s technically feasible, and it could create local jobs. Oldham says that a typical direct air capture plant might hire 100 people, and can create additional jobs in distribution.

“At this point, it’s pricey and difficult, but it’s all inbound and credible,” Friedmann says. “These companies and technologies are essentially where batteries were 10 years ago and where solar was 20 years ago. The investment community can smell that. They get that this is the next thing.” And it’s something that could happen anywhere.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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