The concentration of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere is increasing. According to the Weather Observatory on Mauna Loa (Hawaii), in May 2022, the average monthly record was broken — 420.99 parts per million (while the average annual maximum was the highest in 2021 — 417.7 parts per million). At the same time, over the past 650 thousand years, the concentration has not risen above 300 ppm. Carbon dioxide is considered one of the main culprits of climate change. This can result in devastating weather disasters, excess heat-related deaths, food production crises and migration problems. The prospects are not bright, therefore, along with reducing emissions, technologies are being developed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Let’s see what stage they are at.
The technology of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is not new. It is ironic that for several decades it has been used … in oil production! It is in the industry that is the starting point for the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because of the combustion of fossil fuels. The gas is pumped underground, where it reduces the viscosity of the oil and increases its mobility. As a result, the flow of oil to the well increases, production is more vigorous, and more minerals can be extracted from the ground.
The general scheme of carbon dioxide capture technology is as follows. The installation for this is usually (but not necessarily) built near a major emission source, such as a power plant. Various technologies are used to capture it, but as a result, carbon dioxide is pumped underground into natural geological formations, where it is stored with no hope of returning to the atmosphere.
Norway, a country that made a fortune in oil production, pioneered the extraction and disposal of carbon dioxide. Back in 1996, then-state Norwegian oil producer Statoil (renamed Equinor in 2018) launched a project to store carbon dioxide in the depleted Sleipnir oil field in the North Sea. But by no means because of concerns about the environment — according to standards, the produced gas should contain no more than 2.5% CO2 impurities. Statoil got all 9%. Burning excess impurities was expensive due to the emissions tax, so they were buried. In 2017, based on this experience, three oil companies — Statoil, Shell and Total — decided to create the world’s first international carbon dioxide storage facility with a capacity of 1.5 million metric tons per year under the North Sea. However, the project was canceled almost immediately: firstly, the investments turned out to be too large, and secondly, the public was afraid that the gas might escape from the storage.
In 2021, they returned to the idea — now with the support of the Norwegian government, which allocated $1.7 billion for the Longship project. Northern Lights (a project of the same trio) plans to capture emissions from the Norcem cement plant in Brevik (and cement plants are one of the largest CO2 producers in the world), transport them to the terminal in Oygarden, and then pump them through the pipeline to a depth of 2.6 km (1.6 miles). It is planned to cost almost $3 billion to implement, but the project is seen as an important step towards carbon neutrality.
While the Norwegian project is underway, Iceland opened last year the world’s largest plant to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The Orka plant, owned by Swiss start-up Climeworks, will take up to 4,000 metric tons of CO2 annually, with annual emissions estimated at more than 30 billion metric tons. Although the factory’s environmental impact is not noticeable right now, in the future the startup hopes to scale up production to have a noticeable impact on the planet’s ecology.
Let It Be… Useful!
But pumping carbon dioxide into the ground is not the only way out. Carbon dioxide can be recycled into something useful, and the technology for this already exists. For example, in 2019, chemists in Australia reported that they had found a way to convert carbon dioxide into coal at room temperature, a process that previously required extremely high temperatures. Using liquid metals as a catalyst, the scientists managed to avoid coking and, consequently, a decrease in catalytic activity. It is claimed that the process can be scaled up to industrial scale, but this is still in the process.
Canadian Carbon Engineering is also involved in carbon processing technologies, as well as storing it underground. In 2015, the company built a pilot carbon capture plant in Squamish with a capacity of one ton per day. By 2017, Carbon Engineering had developed and patented its own Air to fuels technology, which allows carbon dioxide to be converted into fuel. The energy that is used in this process comes from environmentally friendly sources, so that the process does not lead to the formation of new carbon dioxide. Thanks to technology, it is possible to exhaust gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. By the way, Elon Musk spoke in favor of this technology, stating on Twitter that SpaceX is going to start producing rocket fuel from carbon dioxide. Musk believes this will help colonize Mars, whose atmosphere is almost entirely carbon dioxide.
Already this year, it is planned to begin construction of the world’s largest plant for capturing and processing carbon dioxide. This was made possible through a partnership between Carbon Engineering and a subsidiary of the oil company Occidental Petroleum. The plant will be in the Permian Basin, a large oil and gas region in the southwestern United States. The 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide that is planned to be extracted from the air annually will be pumped into underground storage facilities and used by Occidental Petroleum to extract oil.
It Sounded Right On Paper
The technology has received a lot of criticism. Its first and, apparently, the most important drawback is its almost imperceptible impact on the ecological situation. As mentioned above, even the most powerful plant for capturing carbon dioxide is not able to have any noticeable effect on its content in the atmosphere. And for the effect to be noticeable, more noticeable power is needed. But who will pay for their construction?
Here we come to the second drawback — funding. As can be seen from the example of Norway, such projects were unsuccessful until the state contributed more than half of the amount needed for implementation. The Icelandic plant is mainly paid for by the Swiss insurance company, which is thus fulfilling its commitment to become carbon neutral by 2030. Carbon Engineering has also been funded by public and private investors, including Bill Gates. And she was able to create a full-scale production only with the money of a large oil company. The fact is that attracting investors to this area is quite difficult. While electric vehicles, renewable energy, and other such projects are all the rage and show quick environmental and financial benefits, carbon capture projects have little marketing appeal. In general, capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere needs a million times more money – but where to get it is not clear.
Finally, the technology has been criticized because it is not clear whether it actually reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the end. The same Norway, launching expensive projects, simultaneously increased oil production, nullifying its own efforts. Funding from major oil companies has also been criticized, with the technology being used for tertiary oil production (as described at the beginning of the article) and for avoiding environmental taxes. In other words, with one hand, carbon dioxide is taken from the atmosphere, and with the other hand, more oil is extracted from the depths, which will become fossil fuels, which will be burned and turned into carbon dioxide.