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Future of Fossil Fuels From Thin Air

Fighting  for the environment can be done in multiple ways. Reducing the cost or accessibility of renewables is one way – energy sell-back, subsidies, and new technologies. More recently, EU decided to tackle 10 biggest single-use plastics within their jurisdiction, hoping to “deliver tangible results [..] before the elections in May 2019”. Those methods concentrate on avoiding future build-up of pollution.

However there is another aspect that needs to be focused on: repairing the damages already caused. It’s uplifting hearing about another country running solely on renewables for X days in a row, or the fact that biggest ocean pollutants are being phased out of our lifestyles but reduction of the build-up is also important . New ocean cleaning initiatives, carbon sucking towers, reforestation are all methods to combat the pre-existing depreciation of our planet. In all of this, a peer reviewed article from Carbon Engineering from a week ago gave another promising opportunity in carbon elimination through Direct Air Capture (DAC)*.

The company researched a new method of DAC to obtain clean air and produce fuel in return. The promise in this technology is the drop in price in capturing one tonne of carbon from the atmosphere. Before the estimates were at around 600 USD (509 EUR), CE’s new technology lies in range of 94 to 232 USD. Another bonus is that the previously mentioned fuel – liquid hydrocarbon, will be carbon-neutral and can be produced at an industrial scale with a plant anywhere in the world, avoiding the very locations that this technology is trying to save. This fuel being natural gas is already compatible with modern infrastructure, meaning the market and demand are already there for CE to capture.

While this process can directly benefit the transportation sectors worldwide, there is an external benefit for such substitution. Recent method of unearthing natural gas, ie. fracking has caused a lot of debates regarding its safety, from causing earthquakes to contamination of drinking water and health problems from that. Removing contamination from a single well used by 14 households in Pennsylvania cost over 100,000 USD, with such a high price tag, it is therefore often that such cleanups are not even attempted with the chemicals used in fracking remaining in drinking water for extended periods of time. There are number of costs involved with this process, including road repairs. Reducing the need for fracking and the surrounding infrastructure could motivate further developments in DAC technology and deployment.

Furthermore, CE’s publication could spark some competition between them and a Swiss based company – Climeworks, which has same goals in mind of absorbing carbon through DAC. While they are still looking at methods of reaching sub-100 USD capture price, they have already developed a working plant. Their approach to carbon byproduct is in form of fertilisers and providing carbon gas for fizzy drinks.
While the cost of capturing CO2 by DAC is still greater than current prices of natural gas, the current world situation requires constant research into. Quoting the Executive Director of CE: “This analysis demonstrates the potential for Carbon Engineering’s technology to fall to a cost that would drive significant investment and corporate adoption in the near future.” Most technologies, regardless of the state of environment and the future will be adopted once commercially viable or forced through regulations. Closing the carbon loop and recycling it from the air could present new approach to saving the environment, giving markets new methods of supplying previously damaging fuels and materials.

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