Scaling Carbon Capture

This blog is a follow up to So You Want To Start A Carbon Capture Company. In the last five months, the cadence of new entrants in this space, as well as new climate-focused funds, has only increased. This is a marked, though welcome, contrast to the now familiar dithering and lack of unified action at the international political level.

Our entire civilization rests on our ability to harness ancient solar energy stored underground as reduced carbon and capture the heat unleashed when we bring it into chemical equilibrium with the surface by combusting it in our oxygen rich atmosphere. The benefits of coal, gas, and hydrocarbons cannot be overstated. Compared to our pre-industrial ancestors, we enjoy longer healthier lives because we have the ability to dispatch roughly 100 times as much power as we can absorb and produce through our own metabolism. Food is also a form of reduced carbon derived from photosynthetic plants that we can digest and eventually breathe out, after swapping a couple of electrons with the oxygen we breathe. Food, compared to fossil carbon, is far harder to produce and transport.

Ceasing use of fossil fuels overnight would lead to immediate collapse of our civilization, mass starvation, and a return to pre-industrial norms of hunger and poverty. And yet, continuing to burn fossil fuels artificially enriches our atmosphere with excess CO2 which increases the greenhouse effect of Earth’s atmosphere, eventually leading to a climate catastrophe that will also destroy our civilization and lead to mass starvation, war, and coastal flooding as described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel “Ministry for the Future”.

Political deadlock centers around an intermediate vision, one in which our civilization attempts to reprice fossil fuels to internalize the currently free unpriced externality of dumping unlimited quantities of gaseous combustion products into the atmosphere. Thus making fossil fuels more expensive, their alternatives could attract more investment and hasten deployment, weaning us from our terrible addiction. At the same time, this means ever higher fuel prices which constitute a regressive tax on the world’s poor and, historically, political instability. Dozens of governments have fallen due to their inability to assure continued supply of sufficiently cheap fossil fuels. Meanwhile the sort of mass wealth redistribution required to ensure that fuel price increases did not adversely affect the world’s poor, meaning the 99%, are both politically unsustainable in at least a plurality of countries, as well as being counterproductive in proportion to their effectiveness. That is, it’s very difficult to imagine any set of policies that keep fuel cheap enough for the 99% while also driving sufficiently large reductions in use over a meaningful timescale.

It is certainly true that massive growth in the electric car industry is helping to turn the tide of fuel consumption for personal transportation. Meanwhile, solar, wind, and nuclear power provide carbon-free electricity and are growing at a fabulous rate. On a global basis, however, overall fossil extraction and use continues to grow, producing around 50 gigatons (GT) of additional CO2 every year. To give a sense of the volumes involved, if liquefied, that’s enough to fill San Francisco Bay eight times over. Even given the most optimistic projections for the growth of fossil fuel-displacing industries, the legacy vehicle fleet, air transport, chemicals, heating, electricity generation, and so on will continue to produce enough CO2 to catapult us over the 2C heating limit.

Carbon removal will be required. That is, we will have to build enormous machines capable of scrubbing CO2 from our atmosphere, just as is done in a submarine or spacecraft. Contemplating the enormous cost of this technology, most simulations assume that it will only be applied en masse towards the end of the century when, hopefully, the cost is lower and the need unignorably urgent. To many of my contemporaries, this deus ex machina is a hopeless “get out of jail free” card invented by political cronies unable to make tough unpopular decisions. Indeed, many pilot “clean coal” carbon scrubbing pilot projects are already abject failures. It doesn’t require more PhDs than Bruce Banner to recognize that if scrubbing a tonne of CO2 out of a coal plant smoke stack takes more energy or revenue than what is generated producing that tonne of CO2, the system just cannot work.

And yet there is reason for optimism. Carbon neutral hydrocarbons are within our grasp. As solar power gets cheaper and oil becomes more scarce, at some point this decade it will be cheaper to extract carbon from the air than to drill mile-deep holes in the crust on the other side of the world.

Let us take a brief historical detour. Ammonia is an essential industrial chemical used in fertilizers and explosives, with an annual production of about 176 million tonnes. Prior to 1913, ammonia and nitrates were mined from guano and Chilean saltpeter. Motivated by blockades in the run up to the First World War, German scientist Fritz Haber pioneered the process that bears his name, permitting direct catalytic fixation of nitrogen from our atmosphere. At 78% nitrogen, the atmosphere has essentially unlimited quantities but fixation previously relied on rather unusual biochemical pathways.

In essence, carbon neutral hydrocarbons seek to extend this principle to deriving industrial quantities of reduced carbon from the atmosphere rather than the crust. Plants do this every day when they use water, CO2, and sunlight to produce cellulose, and fossil fuels are derived from their ancient photosynthesis. Despite advances in agriculture, however, plants cannot absorb enough CO2 to compensate for fossil fuel production, and they are trying hard! If they could, biomass-based industrialization would have been possible without coal and oil. Producing enough biomass today to substitute for current fossil fuel consumption would require vastly more water and arable land than Earth has available. Plants are tasty but they are picky about where they grow and ultimately rather inefficient at converting sunlight into reduced forms of carbon. If we are to transition global hydrocarbon consumption to carbon neutral synthetic sources, it will require a mostly physical/chemical process. It is, however, substantially more challenging than ammonia production.

First, concentration of CO2. Unlike nitrogen, which is four fifths of the air we breathe, CO2 is present in the atmosphere at about 420 ppm. There is substantially more nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and water vapor. Hydrocarbon synthesis concepts usually require a concentration step where CO2 is scrubbed from a stream of air and later released as a concentrated flow. To put the challenge in perspective, the US currently consumes 18 million barrels of oil, 13 billion cubic feet of natural gas, and 1.2 mT of coal per day. This generates 14 million tonnes of CO2, or 7 billion cubic meters at STP. Once diluted by atmosphere to 420 ppm, the volume is 17000 cubic kilometers, equivalent to a layer over the entire US land surface 1.8 m thick. To concentrate enough CO2 to synthesize enough hydrocarbons to meet current demand, this volume must be processed every day. Given constant operation and 10 m/s gas flow rate, total aperture area sums to 20 square km. In contrast, the equivalent calculation for global ammonia production works out to a collective aperture of a mere 450 square meters. Displacing global fossil carbon usage is going to require a lot of really big fans.

Second, chemical reduction of CO2. Even with a pure stream of 7 billion cubic meters of gaseous CO2 every day, the gas itself is not very useful. It is a waste product, no more fuel than water or any other fully oxidized chemically stable chemical. The energy released when it was produced has to be put back in, and then some, to tear off the oxygen atoms and produce either reduced carbon as graphite or hydrocarbons. One old fashioned way to do this is to catalytically react CO2 with hydrogen, producing methane (CH4) and water vapor. CH4 is the smallest hydrocarbon and the principle component of natural gas. Doing this requires a very large supply of pure hydrogen, ideally generated electrolytically, which requires an enormous supply of electricity. Direct electrocatalytic reduction of CO2 also requires a lot of electricity, as there is no free lunch. If one had a plentiful source of green hydrogen, though, there are worse things to do with it than reducing CO2. As a pure fuel hydrogen is difficult to deal with and not cross-compatible with existing infrastructure. Some quantity can be used to fill airships, but the volumes required for fuel synthesis would overwhelm airship demand within seconds. The bottom line is that hydrocarbon production from captured CO2 is enormously energy intensive, in addition to having intrinsic inefficiencies. Overall, perhaps 15-35% of input electricity could be converted to chemical energy.

Third, cost of energy. Let’s say I wave a magic wand and a fully operational, fully scaled CO2 capture and hydrocarbon synthesis plant appears. Can I afford to run it? Remember that the energy efficiency of the plant is 35% at best. Given that one of the primary uses of natural gas is burning it to produce electricity, surely using electricity to produce natural gas seems a bit perverse? Natural gas power plants are about 40% efficient at converting natural gas to electricity. Combining the two efficiencies gives a combined efficiency of <14%. Provided my source of electricity is at least seven times cheaper than natural gas-derived electricity, it makes more sense to convert electricity to natural gas than the other way around.

There are certain caveats here. For example, if my source of electricity is solar power and my primary use of electricity is heating, it makes more sense to burn natural gas for heat and save solar power for running appliances and charging electric cars. Each interconversion between thermal and electric energy takes a substantial efficiency hit. This has implications for future energy distribution systems that I will not explore here.

Nevertheless, in markets where solar electricity prices are >7x lower than natural gas, there might be a business case. Does this seem possible? Natural gas prices in Europe this winter have already climbed higher than $22/kcf, almost 10x more than that found in producer regions, such as the US south. In the meantime, the cheapest utility scale solar plants in 2020 are producing electricity at 1.04 c/kWh, compared to typical European prices of around 30 c/kWh, though there are of course differences between electricity price and cost at different points in the system, particularly given that solar power doesn’t work at night.

Let’s look more generally at this problem. Consider the following map showing global solar resource potential. Essentially the entire populated part of the world, except for north west Europe, has a solar resource within a factor of two of the absolute best.

In contrast, oil is not uniformly distributed across the world’s surface. Most places do not have enough, and a tiny minority have way too much! Much of the remaining proven reserves are increasingly uneconomical to extract, requiring more technical drilling, fracking, and refinement than ever before.

While fossil fuels become scarce, their price volatile and generally increasing, the price of solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity continues to drop. The graph below shows that solar prices decline steadily as deployment increases, creating a virtuous cycle and positive feedback loop. On average, costs decline about 10%/year. Solar cost declines slowed due to supply chain issues in 2021 but natural gas prices increased by a much larger factor.

Consider again my magic wand-derived synthetic hydrocarbon plant. Let’s say that deployment is currently unprofitable in Los Angeles because the gas-to-solar price ratio is unfavorable by 30%. In just three years, PV cost improvements eat that gap and I hit break even. There’s not much that natural gas producers can do about it, in the face of continuing solar cost decreases.

We will see this business model break even first in sunny places that lack adequate hydrocarbon supplies, then steadily expand away from these areas towards the poles at about 200 km per year. Indeed, at 10%/year cost improvement, only 8 years separates cost competitiveness in the sunniest places from nearly anywhere else on Earth. A capable carbon capture hydrocarbon synthesis strategy should be capable of keeping up with this explosive market expansion. As a result, the prime constraint will be deployment rather than cost competitiveness, which is essentially the same problem faced by the electric car industry.

These three formidable challenges, CO2 concentration, CO2 reduction, and electricity cost, cannot be underestimated. Overcoming them is a worthy challenge, and enables a rather neat solution.

First, economic displacement of fossil carbon production reduces net production of greenhouse gases while also reducing poverty through more democratized production of more affordable fuel. There is no need to square the political circle of legislating otherwise voluntary hydrocarbon scarcity, potentially at the point of a sword. There is reduced need to worry about supply chain interruptions or price volatility. Seasonal price variations due to weather and climate are readily predictable, and thus priceable, months or years in advance.

Second, a profitable carbon capture industry can self fund and attract project finance using conventional channels. There is no need to print a trillion dollars a year to fund CO2 sequestration, since the CO2 is immediately converted into a valuable product that is immediately bought and used. A mature carbon capture hydrocarbon synthesis industry represents a real way to scrub legacy CO2 emissions from the atmosphere with a modest excise, rather than desperate and long delayed deployment of ruinously uneconomic carbon capture machinery.

Third, direct synthesis of light hydrocarbons from gaseous CO2 sidesteps the technical, financial, geopolitical, and environmental challenges of oil extraction, transport, and refining. No need to deal with sulfates, cracking long hydrocarbons, oil tankers, the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, directional drilling, underground mining, groundwater contamination. Large scale carbon capture represents a new and interesting set of technical and environmental challenges but it’s not intrinsically cursed in the same way as coal, oil, and gas.

There are hundreds of potential technology combinations to choose from. Some are already under active development. Like prominent European tech demonstration Store&Go, scaling economically and technically viable processes is the main challenge. For example, Store&Go predates widespread recognition of continuing cost improvements from solar power, and so it presupposes that the electricity input is scarce and expensive, and places a large emphasis on the energy efficiency of the underlying process. Unsurprisingly, their tech stack is complex and extremely expensive, such that even with a 30 year financing period it would be unable to produce hydrocarbons more cheaply than enduring price gouging from Russia. It is, of course, necessary for Europe to be able to internally produce some volume of hydrocarbons at any cost, but this tech stack cannot compete in the open market. Indeed, no tech stack that optimizes energy efficiency at the cost of capital expenditure (capex) can hope to generate free cash flow over a time frame relevant to climate change mitigation efforts, so large scale deployment depends either on enormous government investment or finding some way to greatly reduce capex.

This is the essential challenge to scaling. An energy inefficient process will be cheaper to produce but more expensive to operate. However, as solar electricity prices decline, an inefficient process will capture more of the gain than an efficient one whose balance of costs is relatively insensitive to electricity prices. Taking this observation to its logical conclusion, the best synthetic hydrocarbon process is one that barely breaks even at any given time, so long as deployment costs are held to an absolute minimum and deployment scale is maximized. Such a process maximizes the carbon captured per dollar of project development capital invested, while banking on ongoing electricity price decreases to generate free cash flow sooner rather than later.

Consider the goal of reducing net transport of carbon from the crust to the atmosphere. If the carbon capture industry grows at a steady rate, it makes essentially no impact until it is nearly completely deployed. As of today, our global CO2 capture capacity is between 1000 T/year and 10,000 T/year. While plants capture much more than this, there is no way for them to capture more than a few percent of net emissions, any more than we could fuel our entire civilization on biomass alone. If we want to scale to capturing 50 billion tonnes per year by 2040, we need an order of magnitude of growth every 3 years, with essentially no impact until 2037. Growing an industry by ~250 %/year for 19 consecutive years is a big ask, especially given that the success condition does not award partial credit, though it does reward a team effort.

On the other hand, any industry poised to generate this much growth is probably the biggest business opportunity this century. There are a handful of companies currently developing cash flow positive carbon capture technologies and business models. There needs to be hundreds. In particular, a graph of approaches by capex and opex needs much filling out, particularly in the low capex, higher opex end of the parameter space. I am convinced that dozens of tech stacks can work economically, but they all need work to build at scale and compete. We need more shots on goal.

With that in mind, I have resigned after four years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to found Terraform Industries. At JPL I was lucky enough to work on Mars rovers, Moon rovers, GPS instruments, and artificial intelligence, but the urgency of decarbonization demands my attention! At TI, we are pursuing a particularly promising approach to gigascale atmospheric hydrocarbon synthesis. Yes, we are currently raising a seed round (Edit: Not anymore). Yes, we are hiring ambitious, exceptional engineers.

56 thoughts on “Scaling Carbon Capture

  1. “There are certain caveats here. For example, if my source of electricity is solar power and my primary use of electricity is heating, it makes more sense to burn natural gas for heat and save solar power for running appliances and charging electric cars. Each interconversion between thermal and electric energy takes a substantial efficiency hit.”

    Let’s not forget heat pumps, with there have to be A LOT of conversion inefficiencies in there to offset the amount of heat you get for free this way.

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  2. “Carbon removal will be required. That is, we will have to build enormous machines capable of scrubbing CO2 from our atmosphere”

    But first we have to replace carbon emitters by carbon-free sources as far as possible. This means we have to built “enormous machines” that convert solar radiation and wind into electricity. This is the first priority, and they already exist. They are known as PV and Wind.

    Second is short term storage. Batteries will be the winners there probably. Then (or in parallel), the grids have to be improved to allow long distance transportation, from sunny or windy places to places that are not. All sectors have to be electrified, because efficiency is so much higher. The consumers have to be made smarter, e.g. by price control. When there is no sun or wind, the price goes up and consumption goes down (e.g. turning of aluminum smelters, cement factories…). This means in winter electricity will be expensive, but in summer it will be nearly free for months.

    The backup comes in the mean time from the still existing plants (gas, nuclear), with more and more reduced operation time. Once the installation of PV brings us again at the point that we have more clean electricity available than can be consumed, then the production of solar fuels can start. Beginning with hydrogen for the chemical industry, the steel production, adding it to the natural gas grid (in small amounts), and so on. Then, finally, we can go to remove CO2 actively from the atmosphere.

    But not before, **because the PV (and the brains) needed for this can be used much more efficiently elsewhere**.

    At the end, carbon removal is probably a good idea, but at the present moment I don’t like it **because it is used far too much as an excuse for doing nothing else**.

    As long as we are not drowning in clean electricity, it should be used for CO2 avoidance and not for CO2 removal. Let’s do the steps in the right order. If somebody wants to (and can) put a lot of money into clean energy, **start with building HUGE PV factories**, e.g. with an output of one panel every second!

    Anyway good luck with your endeavor. Maybe you will start with a … huge PV factory?
    Thorsten

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    1. There’s no first or second here. We need to do all of the above as quickly as possible.

      Cheap enough PV for hydrocarbons is only possible when grid off takers are saturated, for the obvious reasons you state. This is already the case in much of the sunnier places on Earth.

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      1. “There’s no first or second here. We need to do all of the above as quickly as possible.”

        Yes and no. Of course, on the long term we need everything, and things that still need development better start that now.

        But also we have to build the house starting with the foundations. And the fundament of everything, regardless if it’s batteries, hydrogen, heat pumps, CO2-capture or whatever, is a CLEAN power source. And this is Solar and Wind.

        What helps a CO2 removal plant if there is no clean energy to power it? Or if there remain places in the world where this clean energy could be used much more efficiently (in terms of CO2 avoidance)?

        And as far as I see we still are far away from saturating the world with these technologies. First we need PV and Wind everywhere, reduce the administrative obstacles, increase production.

        When this is on the way, the other things will follow automatically. Especially when a **predictable** CO2 price is established, e.g. (just to throw a number) an increase of 20$ per ton and per year.

        Thorsten

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    2. There’s a few sectors where we really do need to build out this carbon-neutral fuel capability. Aviation and marine shipping both need cheap carbon-neutral fuels, at least with current battery technology.

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  3. A couple of thoughts:

    1) As intermittent solar energy costs drop, and assuming it continues to the degree you are assuming, many energy solutions become possible, but like green hydrogen, energy cost is only part of the cost stack. For green hydrogen, it’s the cost, maintenance, and longevity of the electrolysers. So even with low cost electricity, green hydrogen needs significant technology development to be a low cost replacement. With CO2 being at such a low concentration, I expect a breakthrough in the fixed cost (and maintenance and life) is required. Do you have a roughed out cost stack goal and how it compares to existing solutions? In any case, good luck!

    2) If you are removing CO2 to make hydrocarbons that are quickly burned, you aren’t reducing atmospheric CO2, just stopping the increase. This is really no different than green hydrogen. Removing CO2 for Sequestration seems a bit of a challenge and often geographically dependent and limited. But I’m not fully up on that topic so perhaps you can say a few words on that critical aspect.

    Finally, although I hope solar costs continue to drop, that will likely slow at some point as it’ll follow an S-curve much like any technology. My fear is that may be sooner than we are counting on. I hope that’s not the case as solar (and nuclear) are really the only known non-carbon energy sources that can scale to the size of the human enterprise. Crossing my fingers on this one.

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    1. 1) yes. 2) your statement is true if and only if green hydrogen can displace 100% of non durable hydrocarbon uses. 3) I think solar cost improvements will actually accelerate.

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    2. Stopping the increase alone would be a big triumph, but if the tech is there to cheaply capture the CO2, it should be possible to lobby governments to pay a couple billion dollars to use it to also sequester carbon (which you can do with liquid fuels produced this way – you can literally pump them back into rock formations that once held hydrocarbons, and then seal the wells).

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  4. Excellent explanation –
    I suspect that 7:1 is a bit optimistic

    HOWEVER – most renewable energy sources are intermittent and “storage” is currently expensive so the sensible thing to do is to overbuild – so you have enough in the winter (or summer) and as a result you will have surplus in the other season
    I was thinking that we could use the surplus to make aluminium – but that is NOT a process that lends itself to stop start operation

    Using that surplus to produce methane which can take CO2 out of the air and which can be stored ………

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    1. Current plans for green hydrogen plants often have behind-the-meter wind or solar with a grid connection. Some PEM electrolysers can be modulated to small percentages of maximum continuous rating and idled with minimal parasitic losses. So whether to operate the plant at MCR or some fraction, export wind or solar generation into spot prices or import from the grid is a relatively straightforward optimisation.
      On this topic, I’ve looked into green hydrogen prices and tech a several times over the last few years. The projected cost/kg from commercial tech is dropping rapidly. A levelised cost of USD2/kg looks doable within a few years. This will mess up the grey and blue hydrogen business models.

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  5. You throw around the phrase “collapse of our civilization” far too casually. Any civilization which can come up with remotely plausible plans for colonizing Mars can survive on a much less hospitable Earth. It might cost hundreds of trillions of dollars to relocate all our coastal cities built on a permeable foundation, build 10 metre seawalls around those that aren’t, build enough desalination to support agriculture, et cetera, but if we have to do it, we can. As Keynes said in reference to World War II, “If we can do it, we can afford it.”

    Any collapse of civilization will be due to political failings. Certainly climate change will excaberate political issues, but humanity and civilization will survive. We might lose 95% of all non-human species and life might suck for the remaining humans, but “collapse of civilization” is unlikely.

    And to suggest that a carbon tax will cause the collapse of civilization is even more patently ridiculous. $20/gallon gasoline will cause riots in the streets, sure, but “collapse of civilization”? Don’t be ridiculous. Carbon pricing is so popular here in Canada that even the mainstream right wing parties have endorsed it. Expensive gas hurts, but getting several thousands of dollars in the mail as a carbon dividend every year is a very effective analgesic.

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    1. I agree here. Humans can live in the most degraded environments and nearly always have. Climate change will be destructive and disruptive, but will not degrade the entirety of the plant below the levels of the areas where humans live reasonably well today.
      However, it will stress humans and humans under stress are a nasty breed: They will fight and all other life forms will suffer as we trample the earth to try to maintain our expectation of ever growing affluence.
      I think the biggest existential threat to our modern way of life is political instability and possibly the return of authoritarianism. We see signs of it all around us. Many books are and will be written about the causes… it’s complicated, but one thing is simple: if we significantly disrupt or society by overreacting to the climate issue or handle it poorly, it will further contribute to the decline of global stability.
      Despite what I said above, I also agree a carbon tax is not doom for society, especially if it is gradually increased over time, to give society and markets time to adjust. One thing societies DO do well is adjust to slow changes. It may not be fast enough for a 1.5 to 2C goal, but in the long run it will significantly help reduce CO2 emissions in a market efficient and human/society friendly fashion. Start at $25 a ton and ramp up over 2-3 decades, that is not a society killer and you can simply return the funds as a progressive rebate.. Not that big a deal, certainly not society dooming.

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      1. I don’t share your optimism for the resilience of our civilization to energy shortages. Read about countries that endured oil shortages, whether Cuba or Venezuela.

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      2. (replying to Casey’s comment here since I can’t reply directly to his for some reason).

        Cuba is a country with strong institutions. For example, they still have world class medical schools. Collapsed civilizations wouldn’t have those. Cuba’s not thriving, but it wasn’t thriving before its energy shortages either. And as a corollary, cheap energy wouldn’t significantly improve the lot of Cubans either. If you’re using Cuba as an example of “civilization collapse” we’re working from very different definitions.

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      1. Definitely not politically sustainable, but $20/gasoline would be so high that you’d see a whole bunch of alternative power tech getting used as an alternative. At $20/gasoline, even Compressed Air Vehicles might be a viable alternative for personal travel.

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    2. Civilization currently relies on on our ability to produce, transport, and store basic necessities like food in a very efficient manner.
      When the cost to produce agricultural products starts doubling, and the cost to ship them does the same, A lot of people are going to discover that they no longer have the means to supply their families with enough calories to sustain them.
      Combined with a similar increase in the costs to heat their homes, there could be real problems.
      One of they key miscalculations of utopian ideas like increasing the costs of such things rapidly to somehow spur innovation is that people are not going to sit quietly and watch their children starve or freeze.
      Starving people are rarely civil.
      The logistics of keeping civilization running are fairly complex, and it is wrong to assume that no matter what we do, someone will keep producing and shipping vast quantities of food and water to the cities, and will maintain order, collect the trash, and keep the power on.

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  6. Great article! And congrats on your job change!
    I do take issue with your argument that carbon pricing must constitute a regressive tax on the world’s poor. Here in Canada (and probably other places), all of the revenue collected from carbon pricing is refunded equally to Canadians at tax time. This is actually progressive, because rich people emit more carbon through their activities, but they get the same sized refund. Most Canadians actually get a higher refund than what they pay in tax. Carbon pricing in this form has the effect of raising the price of carbon intensive goods and services relative to other things, while not reducing the buying power of consumers. It can make electric cars and heat pumps more competitive with dirtier options, and that is a good thing.

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      1. Gas is $10/gallon here in Canada right now, and the government that implemented the carbon tax was just reelected. Impact of the carbon tax has been minimal so far. It was only $20/tonne pre-pandemic and was smaller than the price drops due to low oil prices so the only real impact on Canadians has been the annual carbon dividend tax refund cheque they’ve received.

        It goes up to $50/tonne on April 1 and the base price of oil is now high, so I except to see more adaptation in 2022.

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  7. With that in mind, I have resigned after four years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to found Terraform Industries.

    Talking about dropping a bomb in your last paragraph! Glad to hear more people are working on this.

    I don’t suppose you happen to have a good guess at what the losses would be to then take your methane produced from this, and use it as a feedstock to make liquid fuels? Liquid fuels are what we’re mostly after with this, and it would also open up a rather amusing way to sequester carbon: you could literally turn CO2 back into liquid fuel, and then pump it back into former hydrocarbon rock formations and seal them. It’d be more stable than supercritical CO2.

    Although my favorite bonkers idea for carbon capture and sequestration is to mine calcium oxide (where it exists in un-reacted form and literally represents 12-16% of lunar surface materials), launch it back to Earth with some kind of rail gun or rotating skyhook, and have it scatter and sprinkle down over some patch of ocean where it can then react with CO2 either in the air or water and sink to the ocean floor (forming calcium carbonate in the process).

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  8. While plants are not efficient enough to undo the excess CO2 damage, the lif sciences and biofactories offer a promising way fwd.
    I recently read in SciAm about building large kelp forests that eventually sink to the ocean floor under their own weight thereby achieving both carbon capture and carbon sequestering. Here’s the article:
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/to-fight-climate-change-grow-a-floating-forest-then-sink-it/#:~:text=Kelp%2C%20like%20other%20plants%2C%20uses,carbon%20dioxide%20from%20the%20atmosphere.&text=%E2%80%9CThe%20productivity%20of%20kelp%20forests,that%20biomass%20is%20stored%20carbon.%E2%80%9D
    And here’s one firm building this tech that claims the potential to scale upto gigatons of carbon capture per year.
    https://www.runningtide.com/

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  9. While plants are not efficient enough to undo the excess CO2 damage, the lif sciences and biofactories offer a promising way fwd.
    I recently read in SciAm about building large kelp forests that eventually sink to the ocean floor under their own weight thereby achieving both carbon capture and carbon sequestering. Here’s the article:
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/to-fight-climate-change-grow-a-floating-forest-then-sink-it/#:~:text=Kelp%2C%20like%20other%20plants%2C%20uses,carbon%20dioxide%20from%20the%20atmosphere.&text=%E2%80%9CThe%20productivity%20of%20kelp%20forests,that%20biomass%20is%20stored%20carbon.%E2%80%9D
    And here’s one firm building this tech that claims the potential to scale upto gigatons of carbon capture per year.
    https://www.runningtide.com/

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  10. > “These three formidable challenges … cannot be underestimated.”

    Yes, they can be, and often are underestimated. What is much harder to do is to overestimate them. (Feel free to delete this comment after you have fixed the text.)

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      1. It’s strictly unambiguous, but people are naturally disposed to be confused about it, even after it is carefully explained. Linguists puzzle over that.

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  11. I wonder at what point the tradeoffs will come to favor capturing carbon to synthesize methane, vs the (energetically advantageous) synthesizing ammonia to burn as fuel, displacing mined methane and oil. I am guessing that is at least 10 years in. Maybe 20.

    We need to electrolyze H2 to make ammonia, which we already can do pretty efficiently, but we need to do a very, very great deal of it.

    We probably should figure out a good use for all the waste oxygen we will be producing in world-changing amounts. Maybe dissolve it into river effluent, to counteract ocean dead zones? That might improve ocean consumption of CO2, and reduce ocean acidification.

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      1. Ammonia may be burned almost anywhere hydrocarbons are, with the possible exception of cars. The main speed bump is replacing tankage and plumbing, and worries about containment breaches. So, the best immediate target markets are probably power generation plants, followed by ocean shipping. There is a water-powered multi-GW-scale ammonia synthesis plant under construction in Norway, already. We will need hundreds more.

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      2. For combustion, cost has generally favored getting the oxygen out of the air, vs. capturing and transporting it. (NOx pollution is what we suffer, in exchange.) So, waste oxygen is most often vented. With so much electrolysis going on, pure oxygen might get a lot cheaper, changing the cost equation, though maybe not enough.

        It just seems like we ought to be able to find better uses for cheap waste oxygen. Dissolving it in water was just one idea. It seems worth asking; somebody might have a really good idea.

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  12. In the spirit of beginning with the low-hanging fruit, how much of the CO2 diffusion problem (the 420 ppm in the atmosphere) can be bypassed by capture directly at the stacks or by enclosing some processes (sintering cement, steelmaking)? I assume a lot for coal, a fair amount for LNG, not much for liquids; but as with everything, the numbers will tell the story.

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  13. I see one issue in the business model: as the cost of electricity falls, less use is found for natural gas. So the its price will go down, pushing further the point where captured methane is cheaper than the extracted one.

    There is probably a limit of how low the price of fossil methane could go down. But how low is that ? Often once a well is open the gas flows for free, no ?

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    1. No. Because there will be a fee to pay for emitted CO2. That’s reimbursed if you take the CO2 out of the atmosphere.
      Thorsten

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      1. You mean that government policies taxing CO2 emissions will help in making extracted methane more competitive. I agree with you.

        Basing a business model on government policies is risky though…

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      1. I agree with you: green methane/kerosene cost is falling as fast as electricity cost does (ie exponentially so far).

        What is hard to estimate is when the curves will cross. I don’t know if “at some point this decade” is too optimistic or not.

        Another dynamic, as you stress it, is that carbon fuels (extracted and fossil) also face the competition of pure electric. It makes the estimation of the break even point and the future size of the market even harder.

        Anyhow, this is brilliant, wish you good luck with the series A. I am not an investor, I will invest otherwise.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Thank you for doing this.

    Say, have you heard of “light activated hydrogen” technology? Wondering if something like that can be done for CO2.
    Also, what is your opinion on temp solutions like sunshade(made of moon dust maybe)?

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  15. Methane from whatever source is problematic due to high GWP from fugitive emissions. And burning it causes NOX with very high GWP. Making liquid fuels from carbon capture and electrochemistry might have some appealing features WRT fugitive emissions. Especially putting them through a fuel cell. Although that’s a tech that has remained stubbornly expensive.

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  16. “we enjoy longer healthier lives because we have the ability to dispatch roughly 100 times as much power as we can absorb and produce through our own metabolism.” –

    While that’s partly true, I think that’s radically understanding the improvements in medical care, notably anti-biotics, vaccines, and radiotherapy against cancer. Coupled with a global increase in education and public infrastructure.

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  17. This post inspired me to do some first-principles calculation “what is a lower bound on the amount of energy required to capture CO2 at scale” (not going to calculate energy required to do something useful with captured CO2 for now).

    Simple thermodynamic equation for concentrating CO2 from ambient pressure to 1 atm (k_b T ln(p1/p2)) gives 20kJ per mol of CO2 or 1.6GJ per ton of CO2 or 444KWh per ton of CO2.

    For background, we’ve gone from 280 ppm to 420 ppm CO2 in the past 300 years, with a rate of 2 ppm per year in the past decade. (https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-atmospheric-carbon-dioxide)

    So lets try to figure out how much energy would be required to capture 1ppm of CO2 per year (technically, we’re just concentrating 1ppm worth. Again, haven’t considered what to do with all this CO2 yet).

    Given 1ppm of CO2 is 2.13Gt CO2, we end up with 1000TWh or 115GW continuous power for a year. How much is this? Well total US utility electricity production last year was about 4000 TWh (https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/electricity/electricity-in-the-us-generation-capacity-and-sales.php).

    The implication of this as I see it are:
    1. the lower prices of solar during the daytime are simply a reflection of the fact we haven’t built carbon capture at scale yet, cause its going to need lots of electricity.
    2. we need to overbuild renewables and stop worrying about their intermittancy. This is all the more challenging given overall electricity use in the US has been relatively constant the past decade, due to efficiency improvements. And again, that we don’t have carbon capture at scale yet.
    3. I’m skeptical 1. and 2. can happen in reasonable time frames at reasonable scales. So lets please stop cutting down trees (and probably re-forest lots of areas). Also will probably need more carbon sequestration systems that utilize biological/geological cycles.

    Curious to hear others thoughts (or if people would like to confirm my math is right)

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    1. These calculations are really helpful.

      To me, this says that the most valuable thing to do for some time will be to work to displace carbon output, rather than capturing carbon output and selling that to be re-emitted. You displace carbon output by providing other ways to achieve what is now done with the carbon fuel. For cars, that seems to be building out the electric fleet, and (important!) charging its batteries using renewables. Coal and gas electric generation are being displaced. We probably need legislation to force a changeover to a carbon-neutral concrete formula. For steel and fertilizer production, we need green hydrogen.

      (BTW, just three US companies, involved in the chip business, account for almost all of the ongoing fluorine compound venting, and should be curtailed. But we will need to extract and neutralize the refrigerants used in current A/C equipment, and replace that; the worldwide installed base of such equipment, if vented, would be equivalent to 200 ppm of CO2, and good luck ever capturing that! Vented fluorine compounds *already* account for ~10% of heat forcing, equivalent to 40 ppm CO2.)

      The tough nuts are shipping and aviation, that need liquid fuel. Aviation probably needs kerosene until it gets new airframes with tanks for LH2 slung under the wings. We need to ensure there is plenty of LH2 production capacity in place at international airports as those start to arrive. Fortunately, their efficiency advantage is enough to make them hard to compete with, once flying. If you are going to tool up to capture carbon and synthesize liquid fuel, jet fuel seems like the best choice for the next two decades or so.

      That leaves ships, trains, and trucks. Ships are a pretty good story: the hulls and engines are fine as-is; the fuel tankage and plumbing needs to be retrofitted for liquid ammonia. Petroleum supertankers will need to be converted to bring synthetic NH3 to latitudes where solar electric is impractical. For rail, LCH4 or LC2H6 might be a better choice; gaseous NH3 is quite buoyant, but if spilled could poison a lot of people before it all boils off. For trucks, the picture is not clear; electric might win, or LCH4, or even syndiesel. Farm equipment can be converted to ammonia produced from local wind turbines; those turbines then don’t need a grid connection, or other storage.

      All of the synthetic liquid fuel alternatives, whether CH4, NH3, synthetic kerosene, or straight LH2 depend very heavily on H2 production. There will be an unlimited market for H2 far into the indefinite future. We should also be building out aerogel production capacity to make LH2 tankage more practical.

      A good use for waste O2 would be good to discover, because there will be a hell of a lot of it.

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  18. About the time the Florissant Fossil Beds were forming, the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were thought to be about 8000 ppm. Life survived, it even flourished. (There were dragonflies with 3 foot wingspans.) Life will continue at 420 ppm and up, and humans will adapt (which is their greatest strength).

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    1. We will cope, even if we have to construct enclosed domes to live in, as though we were on a hostile planet – which we will be.

      Most, perhaps, of the flora and fauna will not survive.
      And once species are gone, they are gone forever.

      Is that an acceptable trade for your 20th century comforts?

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  19. Gratz on the move, and the guts to make it! I had been thinking a bit about how to use “embodied” energy as the storage component of wind/solar, like one of the other comments Al production, but also hydrocarbons and ammonia. The gas volume scale advantage of NH3 you present is pretty stark, it seems like you could use NH3 to carbon neutralize a range of activities; shipping, railway, trucking?, peaking power, grid storage, … it’s not as seamless as making fungible hydrocarbons out of thin air, but it has the same net effect and perhaps a bespoke consumer is cheaper than dealing with 78% vs 450 ppm. To go carbon negative maybe one could go into long-chain plastics etc. sort of turn the “immortality” of plastics into a virtue, green plastic pulled out of the air?

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