Wait—Did These Scientists Just Make a Huge Step Toward Solving Climate Change?

Harvard team announces they can scrub carbon from air and turn it into fuel.


Researchers from Harvard and the private sector announced last week they’ve discovered a simple, inexpensive method to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. What’s more, they can turn that carbon into gasoline and other hydrocarbon-based fuels. All for somewhere between $90 and $250 per metric ton of carbon removed, drastically cheaper than what scientists have previously thought possible.

The team is led by Harvard physicist David Keith and a company he’s founded—and which is funded in part by Bill Gates—called Carbon Engineering.

Widely implemented, and in theory, this technology has the potential to produce carbon neutral versions of fuels that our entire transportation and manufacturing and food production infrastructure rely on, while also allowing for seemingly limitless carbon sequestration.

Needless to say, this is potentially a gob-smacking, historically crucial development with some incredible expectations to fill, but so far, fellow researchers who study carbon capture seem optimistic.

“If these costs are real, it is an important result,” Ken Caldeira, of the Carnegie Institution for Science told The Atlantic. “This opens up the possibility that we could stabilize the climate for affordable amounts of money without changing the entire energy system or changing everyone’s behavior.”

The system, which is already being used on a small scale at a testing operation in British Columbia, works according to what seem like simple processes. Air passes over a strong alkaline liquid, and, carbon dioxide, being an acid, bonds with the base liquid. Then the carbon is separated out from the rest of the liquid through chemical processes, and freezing. Once the carbon is isolated, hydrogen is added, creating a hydrocarbon fuel. All of these techniques are in use in various forms in other industry applications, which is why the team thinks this can all be done so cheaply.

Since the gas created from this process was itself made from pulling carbon out of thin air, burning it wouldn’t add any more carbon to the atmosphere that’s already there. And if storing the carbon underground, or somewhere other than the atmosphere, could be made as profitable as selling carbon neutral gas, massive headway could be made toward reversing climate change caused by carbon pollution.

Keith’s team hopes society cuts carbon emissions as much as possible first, with carbon capture tech there to clean up the mess we’ve already made, and will make in the near future.

 

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