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Turning Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris is over, but scientists are still studying the effects of so much hot air concentrated in a single location.

All joking aside, it’s time to determine whether any real efforts are being made by real companies and people to address climate change.

On one front, at least, the answer is “yes.”

The idea seems straight out of science fiction, but it’s very real. Several start-ups are working on sucking carbon dioxide right out of the air and turning it into something useful – fuel.

Big Money Backing Prototypes

About a decade ago, a number of companies sprang up when it looked as if governments were getting serious about combating climate change.

Several of these firms have actually made significant strides – Switzerland’s Climeworks AG, Canada’s Carbon Engineering Inc., and U.S.-based Global Thermostat.

The three have received financial backing from Audi, Bill Gates, and Edgar Bronfman Jr., respectively.

The good news here is that these companies are at the stage where they have commercial-scale prototypes of their technology.

The two most exciting companies right now are Carbon Engineering and Climeworks.

In April, Climeworks captured CO2 from the air and supplied it to a German firm called Sunfire. Sunfire, in turn, turned the CO2 into zero carbon diesel fuel. Climeworks’ Swiss plant will scale up, capturing about 1,000 tons per year, beginning in mid-2016.

Meanwhile, Carbon Engineering built a pilot plant that will suck a ton or two of carbon dioxide out of the air daily and turn it into about 500 liters of diesel. The facility runs the whole process, from capture to regeneration.

The latter of part of this elemental transformation is easy. Making fuel from CO2 uses the Fischer-Tropsch process, which dates back to the 1920s. The real trick lies in how to directly capture CO2 from the atmosphere.

Carbon Engineering’s process involves fans pushing air through towers containing potassium hydroxide solution. This solution reacts with CO2 to form potassium carbonate. Further treatment separates out the captured CO2. The remaining air – with one-fifth the CO2 – is expelled back into the atmosphere.

Everything is powered by electricity. And where the plant is located in British Columbia, most of the electricity comes from clean hydroelectric sources.

Climeworks’ technology is similar, but it uses granules to soak up CO2 and a module that sits atop an incineration plant.

Is It Practical?

The science behind the process is great. But is this carbon capture and re-use idea practical?

Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences called direct air capture “an immature technology.” And they’re right… for now.

Just taking CO2 out of the air isn’t a viable business model at the moment. You have to turn it into something useful, and at a good price.

Luckily, strides are being made on that front.

At both firms, air capture costs roughly $600 per ton of CO2. Carbon Engineering says that price will drop to the $100 to $200 range when larger plants are built. But that’s still well above the price of conventionally manufactured CO2.

Costs will drop even further if the industry becomes much, much bigger. And that might only happen if governments around the world impose a heavy carbon tax on industries.

Then the industries that are big CO2 emitters would literally pay firms like Carbon Engineering and Climeworks just to pull carbon dioxide out of the air.

Sounds crazy. But anything is possible when politicians are involved.

Good investing,

Tim Maverick

Tim Maverick

, Senior Correspondent

View More By Tim Maverick