. . . and cool the planet at the same time.
The science of pulling atmosphere-warming CO₂ out of the air and either storing it or turning it into stuff is known as carbon capture, and it’s back in the headlines thanks to a US$100 million prize that’s up for grabs from the world’s richest man.
Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk is calling on engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs to build and demonstrate a working carbon removal system that can take carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere or ocean and store it in a safe and cost-effective way.
“This is not a theoretical competition; we want teams that will build real systems that can make a measurable impact and scale to a gigaton level. Whatever it takes. Time is of the essence,” Musk says.
He is not the only heavy hitter throwing money at the problem. Governments around the world including in the US, the UK and Australia have allocated tens of millions of dollars in funding to support the development of carbon capture, use and storage projects.
Oil and mining giants like Chevron, Occidental and BHP can also be found among the big financial backers of the latest carbon capture developments.
Some fear developments in the space will cause complacency around CO₂ emission reduction, or become a way for big emitters to bury their problems. But others stress that these solutions are now crucial if we are to avert a global climate catastrophe, and they must be scaled significantly in a short space of time.
"We want teams that will build real systems that can make a measurable impact and scale to a gigaton level. Whatever it takes. Time is of the essence."
Unlike pioneers of the sector who mostly focused on drawing carbon out of the exhausts of mining operations, factories, and other big emitters and burying it underground, newer market entrants are developing technology that can draw CO₂ directly out of the air and transform it into useful products.
Here’s a quick look at some of the innovators in the space and just some of the products that can be made from all of that captured carbon.
CLEAN AVIATION FUEL
Canadian company Carbon Engineering, whose backers include Bill Gates and mining giants like Chevron, Occidental and BHP, is creating clean fuel out of air at its pilot facility in Canada. It pulls in atmospheric air, then through a series of chemical reactions, extracts the CO₂ which is then stored or used to create the fuel.
FUEL, FERTILISER & FIZZ
Swiss company Climeworks operates a commercial facility in Italy that filters CO₂ from the surrounding air. Its technology uses a filter and chemical process and it stores carbon dioxide as a concentrate. Some of the carbon dioxide it captures is buried and some is turned into ecofuel, fertiliser, and sparkling water.
PLASTICS, CAR PARTS & FUEL
Opus 12 has created a CO₂ electrolysis process that can be used to convert carbon into 16 different products including syngas, methane, and ethylene. Ethylene is the precursor for most of the world’s plastics and the US startup is making inroads into this market. Its process combines CO₂, water and electricity and it recently teamed up with Daimler to make parts for its luxury cars. Opus 12 is also looking to help the US Airforce make its own fuel at remote bases, and is working with NASA on CO₂ to ethylene.
BEER FIZZ & FERTILISER
Earthly Labs recycles CO₂ on a smaller scale with a focus on small breweries and growers. The Texas company’s CiCi technology is a fridge-sized machine that collects, purifies and liquefies brewery CO₂ emissions and then returns it to the beer production process or enables it to be on-sold to other beverage companies or other industries to create products such as fertiliser.