Fuel from thin air

1st February 2019

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In our Pathfinders series, we're moving beyond case studies to focus on those transformative, innovative solutions that enable society to tackle the big challenges that we all face in the transition to sustainability.

With continued global growth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it is becoming clear that civilisation will likely need to turn to aggressive sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere.

Carbon Engineering is a Canadian-based clean energy company is located in Squamish, a small town between Whistler and Vancouver in British Columbia. The company was founded in 2009 and has been capturing CO2 from the atmosphere since 2015, converting it into fuels since December 2017. Its focus is on commercialising two technologies that could rapidly advance the world's shift to a sustainable carbon-neutral economy. These technologies include:

  • Direct air capture (DAC) technology, which can remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere for use or storage. When coupled with secure geological storage of CO2, DAC can deliver large-scale negative emissions
  • Air To Fuels‚Ñ¢ technology, which can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of transportation by creating clean synthetic fuels made from air, water and renewable power.

Carbon Engineering is funded by private investors including Bill Gates and Murray Edwards, with support from the Canadian and US governments.

Direct air capture

DAC is the first industrially scalable technology of this nature, removing CO2 directly from air. It processes atmospheric air, removes the CO2 and delivers it in compressed, purified form ready for industrial use. The captured atmospheric CO2 offers a range of opportunities to create products and environmental benefits. If the CO2 is stored geologically underground, it can help to reduce the effects of global climate change by creating negative emissions. Alternatively, the CO2 can be used for enhanced oil recovery to create low-carbon crude or to produce clean fuels and other products or materials.

DAC capturing CO2 from the atmosphere for less than CAD$135 (£79) per tonne, and the technology is ready for commercialisation. Facilities can be built to capture 1m tonnes of CO2 per year each – equivalent to the annual emissions of 250,000 average North American cars.

Air To Fuels technology

Air To Fuels uses CO2 that has been captured directly from air to synthesise clean transportation fuels, including petrol, diesel and Jet-A. The process uses water electrolysis and fuels synthesis to produce clean liquid hydrocarbon fuels. Renewable electricity is used to generate hydrogen from water, which is then combined with CO2 captured from the atmosphere to produce hydrocarbon fuels.

The fuels produced have an ultra-low life-cycle carbon intensity, are cleaner burning than fossil fuels, and are drop-in compatible with existing transportation engines, aircraft and infrastructure – meaning no infrastructure turnover is required. They can also be blended with traditional fossil fuels. Intermittent renewable energy technologies like solar and wind power work also well with Air To Fuels technology, as it can be placed near the wind or solar sites where power costs are low in order to produce clean, synthetic fuels that can be stored and transported to meet the demands of the global energy sector.

Due to an unlimited feedstock of atmospheric CO2, the technology could provide global-scale quantities of clean, synthetic fuels to meet growing demand for low carbon fuels. They can be produced for less than CAD$1.35 per litre (£0.80 per litre), making them cost competitive with biofuels. However, they require 100 times less land and significantly less water to produce than biofuels.

Extra credit

On Nov 13 2018, the European Parliament approved new targets for second-generation biofuels in the revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED II). These second-generation biofuels must provide at least 14% of transportation fuel by 2030. The Californian Low Carbon Fuel Standards (LCFS) will now enable fuels that are manufactured with the Air To Fuels methodology to generate carbon credits.

In North America, fossil fuels generally cost around CAD$0.67 per litre (£0.40 per litre) to produce. Fuels produced by Carbon Engineering cost around CAD$1.40 per litre (£0.83 per litre) to manufacture. Credits generated through Low Carbon Fuel Standard regulations like those in British Columbia and California amount to around CAD$220 per tonne (£130 per tonne), which equates to approximately CAD$0.65 per litre (£0.40 per litre). Effectively, this means that although Carbon Engineering's fuels are more expensive to produce than fossil fuels, they become cost competitive when these ultra-low carbon fuels generate credits. Indeed, in these jurisdictions, Air To Fuels products are already cost competitive. As the world transitions towards increased carbon regulations, and as technology increases in efficiency, this will become the case throughout the world.

Carbon Engineering is actively seeking its first partners to build full-scale commercial facilities that produce fuel from air throughout the world – so these are exciting times.

Jae Mather CEnv FIEMA is co-founder and director at the Carbon Free Group and executive director at Clean Energy BC

Image credit: iStock


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