Could this plant hold the key to generating fuel from CO2 emissions?
In the aftermath of the Paris climate agreement, those wondering how the world is going to seriously reduce and even reverse the flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere may find a key part of the answer taking shape on a rain-soaked parcel of industrial land in Squamish, B.C.
Sandwiched between towering cliffs and a dramatic coastline 50 kilometres north of Vancouver, the site is home to a small pilot plant where engineers are busy pulling CO2 out of the air so it can be stored or turned into a fuel that displaces conventional gasoline.
The idea amounts to a surprisingly simple but potentially game-changing way of getting at the climate problem. Around the world, temperatures and sea levels are rising because we’re burning too much carbon. The Squamish project is demonstrating a new way to unburn it.
“I would say we’ve knocked down the big hurdles,” says Adrian Corless, chief executive officer of Carbon Engineering, the Calgary-based company behind the project, as he describes the various technical challenges his team has surmounted. “The things that could have killed us – we’re past those now.”
There is no magic to removing carbon dioxide from air. It’s a feat that is performed routinely on submarines and spacecraft – places where the air supply is limited and occupants would suffocate if CO2 were allowed to build up. But the goal for Mr. Corless and his team is to separate CO2 from air using a method that can be scaled up to make a difference to the global climate system.
The strategy is known as direct air capture, and Carbon Engineering is one of a handful of companies in the world working to make it commercially viable. Since carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is the same everywhere, a direct air capture facility could, in principle, be set up anywhere. The company settled on Squamish for its prototype because the land was available and engineering firms used to dealing with the chemical industry were close at hand.
Of course, one prototype plant won’t save the planet, but the facility is attracting global attention because it may prove especially useful for solving a key piece of the world’s carbon conundrum: the heavy-transportation sector.