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Direct Air Capture- a viable dream or simply impossible at scale

Paul Hobcraft's picture
Innovation & Energy Knowledge Provider Agility Innovation

I work as a transition advocate for innovation, ecosystems, within IIoT, and the energy system as my points of focus. I relate content to context to give greater knowledge and build the...

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  • Apr 20, 2022
Courtesy of CB Insights

I have been working through the latest IEA report “Direct Air Capture: a key technology for net-zero

I have to be utterly honest here, I really struggle with the viability (as it stands) for Direct Air Capture (DAC) to be a significant contributor to achieving net-zero by 2050.

If we cannot soon demonstrate AT SCALE the viability I think this pursuit of capturing CO2 directly from the air is a distraction, huge experimentation that deflects us and much needed financial and human capital away from more proven (at scale) technologies or solutions.

I want to be wrong in my current disbelief but I am simply not optimistic

In this recent IEA report the DAC their scenario states a capture of more than 85 Mt of CO2 in 2030 and around 980 MtCO2 in 2050. They put it mildly this is requiring a large and accelerated scale-up from almost 0.01 MtCo2 today. No need to check the figures suggested and where we are, it strikes me as something we want but seems to not be able to achieve in technology.

IEA claim DAC is a key part of the carbon removal portfolio but it only operates at a (very) small scale with 18 DAC facilities operating experimental plants in Canada, Europe and the United States. The first large-scale DAC plant of up to 1 MtCO2/ year is in advanced development to come on stream (possibly) by mid-2020.

Current realities are in plain sight

In the executive summary of the report, it states “Capturing CO2 from the air is the most expensive application of carbon capture. DAC cost estimates (to quote) are wide-ranging and uncertain”

My interest to keep some hope alive is through Innovation, to get DAC technologies to reduce dramatically their needs for significant amounts of energy. DAC still needed to be demonstrated in different conditions, that is extremely dry or humid conditions, or even dealing with polluted air.

The push is to dangle the capture to offer synthetic fuels but their current cost can be (or is) five times conventional fossil-based options- Really!

The hope within this report comes from the Six priorities for direct air capture deployment

To reproduce these six priorities I have taken them, as outlined in the Executive Summary of the IEA report.

DAC deployment must be accelerated for net-zero. The Net Zero Scenario requires the immediate and accelerated scale-up of DAC, calling for an average of 32 large-scale plants (1 MtCO2/year each) to be built each year between now and 2050. This will require increased public and private support to reduce costs, improve technologies and build the market for DAC technologies, aligned with net-zero goals:

1. Demonstrate DAC at scale as a priority. Targeted policies and programmes are needed for near-term demonstration and deployment. Governments should ensure that planned projects are able to progress to operation and provide essential learnings for DAC technologies and supply chains.

2. Foster innovation across the DAC value chain. Innovation will be critical to reducing manufacturing and operational costs, as well as the energy needs for DAC plants; supporting the availability of low-emission energy sources for high-temperature heat; and developing and reducing the cost of CO2 use applications including synthetic aviation fuels.

3. Identify and develop CO2 storage. The potential for DAC to remove CO2
from the atmosphere in large quantities rests on the development of suitable geological CO2 storage. Although the storage potential is vast, the time to develop these resources can be as long as ten years and could act as a brake on the scale-up of DAC in some regions.

4. Develop internationally-agreed approaches to DAC certification and
accounting. Robust, transparent and standardised international certification and accounting methodologies for DAC are needed to facilitate its recognition in carbon markets and IPCC greenhouse gas inventory reporting.

5. Assess the role of DAC and other CDR approaches in net-zero strategies.
Improved understanding and communication of the anticipated role of DAC
and other CDR approach in net-zero strategies will help identify the
technology, policy and market needs within countries and regions. For
example, the United Kingdom’s Net Zero Strategy identifies a need for around 80 MtCO2 of technology-based carbon removals by 2050.

6. Build international cooperation for accelerated deployment.
Collaboration through international organisations and initiatives such as the IEA, Clean Energy Ministerial, Mission Innovation, and Technology
Collaboration Programme on Greenhouse Gas R&D (GHG TCP/IEAGHG) can
play an important role in promoting knowledge sharing, reducing duplication in research efforts, and harmonising approaches to LCA and accounting methodologies for DAC technologies.

In summary

I just find this extremely hard to believe in, as it stands in technology solutions. We are not beyond a pilot, experimental stage and this pursuit to find workable solutions that can scale has been with us for a number of years.

As I said earlier I hope I am wrong and we see some very promising, robust and scalable solutions within the next two to three years, otherwise, it needs to be taken off the solution radar and realisable alternatives, that are proven, need to move this development money into realistic carbon reduction return projects.

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Julian Jackson's picture
Julian Jackson on Apr 22, 2022

I share your pessimistic assessment.  I don't see how it makes sense in terms of both cost and energy required to make these systems work. Of course there could be a technological breakthrough, but there doesn't seem to be one on the horizon. We'd be better off concentrating our minds in other directions.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Apr 22, 2022

«The first large-scale DAC plant of up to 1 MtCO2/ year is in advanced development to come on stream (possibly) by mid-2020.»

It is to be hoped that the developers of this project are honest enough to publish the real costs, both capital and operating, per tonne of CO2 captured and sequestered.

My guess is that it costs more than $200 per ton. 

So, I too share your skepticism. I wish them the best and hope we’re wrong.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Apr 27, 2022

I see a somewhat different role for Direct Air Capture of CO2.  Rather than being an alternative to BEVs or clean electricity production, I see it as a catch-all, that can act as an offset so that any CO2 emitting process becomes carbon-neutral.  With this in our tool box, even if it is not used often, it plays a crucial role, since it allow carbon-neutrality to be mandated for every industry, without exception.  Remember that Cap & Trade legislation died in the US, in part, because so many industries successfully lobbied for special treatments, the resulting 1000 page legislation package would have be offensive to many voters.

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