Biden, Elon Musk’s carbon capture technology gold rush

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in the White House lobby, the Davos conference room and billionaire‘ Twitter feed, one climate change solution is gaining traction: carbon capture technology.

In recent months, the Biden administration, Elon Musk, and companies like Alphabet and Meta have poured millions — in some cases billions — into investment funds, research initiatives, funding opportunities and competitions. – to develop it. Scientists believe that carbon capture, which absorbs carbon dioxide from the air and stores it deep underground, has the potential to rapidly slow Earth’s rapidly warming climate.

This method takes many forms. One is to connect factories to factories and reuse or transport the carbon emitted directly from the stack. A more experimental version envisions large facilities that can capture air, remove carbon dioxide and store it underground. Others suggest using mine waste, algae farms or biological waste to reduce emissions.

The focus comes in times of crisis. In February, the United Nations warned that climate change had reached a tipping point, Island nations will soon be flooded, millions may have to flee their homes in drought and famine, underwater habitats will disappear, and deaths linked to heat, pollution and malnutrition will rise.

There are 27 carbon capture projects in operation globally, 14 in the U.S., According to an October report by the Global CCS Institute, a think tank. Another 108 models are in various stages of production worldwide.

Despite the growth in projects, heated debates remain. Critics argue that carbon capture technology is expensive, inefficient and difficult to scale. In addition, they argue, the money spent developing the tool diversifies funding for proven solutions such as renewable energy, while encouraging oil and gas companies and other carbon-heavy nations to continue operating unabated.

“Reality has not confirmed that this will solve the problem of large-scale global emissions and accelerated climate change,” said Nikki Reisch, director of the Climate Program at the Center for International Environmental Law. “Unfortunately, this is an attractive myth. [created] It’s up to the oil industry to perpetuate the idea that we can… own our cake and eat it. “

The growing chorus of carbon capture

Carbon capture builds on natural processes like photosynthesis, which allows trees and plants to absorb carbon dioxide and convert it into usable energy. But as the world industrializes, natural methods of treating and removing carbon from the air are not enough to keep things in balance.

In the early 1970s, oil and gas companies began using chemical processes to separate carbon dioxide from gas pumped on site And direct it back to the oil field to get more oil from the surface. Years later, the process of making the most of waste has emerged as a way to mitigate climate change. Companies build factories to extract carbon from concrete, cement and steel plants for reuse or permanent storage in geological formations.

IEA analyst Carl Greenfield said carbon capture technology had proven successful in reducing carbon emissions in tricky places like cement plants, sparking excitement in the industry.

He added that carbon capture technology has evolved from the 1970s, when it aimed to increase natural gas production with a greater focus on reducing carbon dioxide. Government initiatives, such as the U.S. program that provides tax credits for every metric ton of carbon captured by companies, have created economic incentives.

“The drivers we saw this time were really different,” he said. We “hope this will be enough to turn that momentum into implementation.”

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But many experts say simply shifting carbon emissions from factory stacks won’t work, especially since the system must be connected to the factory that emits the emissions, making it difficult to scale up quickly. Direct air capture, which uses a chemical reaction to capture carbon dioxide directly from the air and permanently redirect it underground, is supported by its ease of setup.

While critics say the technology is still years away from implementation, it hasn’t stopped funding work. The Biden administration allocated $3.5 billion for the effort in late May, intending to establish four “direct air capture centers” across the country.

“The latest UN climate report makes clear that removing carbon pollution left in the air through direct air capture and safe storage is a vital weapon in our response to the climate crisis,” Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm said in a statement Say.

In April, Musk’s foundation, along with the nonprofit XPRIZE, awarded $1 million to 15 groups to scale up promising carbon capture solutions. Six projects focus on capturing and storing carbon dioxide from the air.

After four years, they will choose a grand prize winner to receive $50 million, while the three runners-up will split the $30 million in funds.

Cam Hosie, CEO of 8 Rivers and one of the winners of Musk’s competition, said his project is emerging as an inexpensive solution that can scale faster than other attempts.

His creation allows air to pass through a warehouse filled with calcium hydroxide. Natural processes convert carbon dioxide into calcium carbonate crystals. These would then be recycled and allow carbon dioxide to be trapped underground around the world, making it easy to build facilities. “It can be delivered immediately and is extremely scalable,” he added.

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But many climate advocates vehemently oppose the creation of new factories that capture carbon from factories or directly from the air.

Dominic Eagleton, senior campaigner at Global Witness, pointed to research showing that 78% of large-scale projects to capture air from factory polluting sites have been cancelled or put on hold due to challenges in funding and economic viability.

That highlights a notable problem, Eagleton said: These types of plants require significant up-front costs, sometimes as much as $1 billion, and are unprofitable and expensive to run long-term.

“The investment case for carbon capture and storage is weak,” he said. “There’s really not much you can do [it]. “

Carbon capture plants attached to plants such as coal-fired power plants can extend the life of fuel sources that should be decommissioned, added Reisch of the Center for International Environmental Law. Running a carbon capture plant requires a lot of energy and complex chemical processes, so scaling up the technology could actually increase the entry of other harmful pollutants into the environment, she added.

As for promising solutions for capturing carbon from the air, she said, these are unproven by science. Because the carbon dioxide concentration in the air is not high, it takes a huge amount of energy for manufacturing plants to extract it from the air. She argues that governments and philanthropists are better off scaling up established technologies such as wind and solar and focusing more on creating more policies to control levels of carbon dioxide emissions.

“People want to believe there’s a quick fix — but there isn’t,” she said. “We need systemic structural change.”

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