A Bill Gates-backed firm just found a cheap way to make diesel from thin air

Carbon Engineering has used direct air capture to make fuel for $500 per tonne cheaper than before

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Rather than pumping oil straight from the ground, our cars, planes and businesses could soon be powered by fuel taken from thin air. 

By removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into fresh fuels, through a process known as direct air capture, engineers at a Canadian firm have outlined a "scalable and cost-effective" way to reduce the planet's carbon footprint without having to disrupt industries. 

 As the name suggests, direct air capture uses huge fans that capture ambient air and push it through an aqueous solution that picks out and traps the CO2. This solution is then heated and treated, to kick off chemical reactions making it possible to re-extract this carbon dioxide to be used for making chemicals needed for fuel, or for storage. These fuels include gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

Carbon Engineering – an energy company backed by Microsoft's Bill Gates – has not only proved this process works, it has now released a peer-reviewed study that shows how its particular facility in British Columbia can save a staggering $500 per tonne.

"The carbon dioxide generated via direct air capture can be combined with sequestration for carbon removal, or it can enable the production of carbon-neutral hydrocarbons, which is a way to take low-cost carbon-free power sources like solar or wind and channel them into fuels that can be used to decarbonise the transportation sector," said lead author David Keith, founder and chief scientist of Carbon Engineering and professor of applied physics and public policy at Harvard University.

The idea of direct air capture isn't new (the pilot itself has been running since 2015), but the successful implementation of Carbon Engineering's working plant is. Keith and his colleagues claim their direct air capture plant costs roughly $94 to $232 per tonne of carbon dioxide captured, which is on the low end of estimates that have ranged up to $1,000 per tonne, but are more often listed as $600 per tonne.

 

The lower price-point would make direct air capture a viable option to start tackling the 20% of global carbon emissions from driving, flying and trucking.

"Electricity from solar and wind is intermittent; we can take this energy straight from big solar or wind installations at great sites where it's cheap and apply it to reclaim and recycle carbon dioxide into new fuel," Professor Keith added. "Making fuels that are easy to store and transport eases the challenge of integrating renewables into the energy system."

"We are not going to run out of air anytime soon," said Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering. "We can keep collecting carbon dioxide with direct air capture, keep adding hydrogen generation and fuel synthesis, and keep reducing emissions."

The research is published in the Cell journal Joule