Carbon dioxide removal

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Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) methods refers to a number of technologies which reduce the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.[1] Among such technologies are bio-energy with carbon capture and storage, biochar, direct air capture, ocean fertilization and enhanced weathering.[1] CDR is a different approach than removing CO2 from the stack emissions of large fossil fuel point sources, such as power stations. The latter reduces emission to the atmosphere but cannot reduce the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. As CDR removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it creates negative emissions, offsetting emissions from small and dispersed point sources such as domestic heating systems, airplanes and vehicle exhausts.[2][3] It is regarded by some as a form of climate engineering,[1] while other commentators describe it as a form of carbon capture and storage or extreme mitigation.[4] Whether CDR would satisfy common definitions of "climate engineering" or "geoengineering" usually depends upon the scale on which it would be undertaken.

The likely need for CDR has been publicly expressed by a range of individuals and organizations involved with climate change issues, including IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri,[5] the UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres,[6] and the World Watch Institute.[7] Institutions with major programs focusing on CDR include the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at the Earth Institute, Columbia University,[8] and the Climate Decision Making Center,[9] an international collaboration operated out of Carnegie-Mellon University's Department of Engineering and Public Policy.

The mitigation effectiveness of air capture is limited by societal investment, land use, and availability of geologic reservoirs. These reservoirs are estimated to be sufficient to sequester all anthropogenically generated CO2.[10]


Bio-energy with carbon capture & storage

Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS, uses biomass to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and carbon capture and storage technologies to concentrate and permanently store it in deep geological formations.

BECCS is currently (as of October 2012) the only CDR technology deployed at full industrial scale, with 550 000 tonnes CO2/year in total capacity operating, divided between three different facilities (as of January 2012).[11][12][13][14][15]

The Imperial College London, the UK Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the Walker Institute for Climate System Research, and the Grantham Institute for Climate Change issued a joint report on carbon dioxide removal technologies as part of the AVOID: Avoiding dangerous climate change research program, stating that "Overall, of the technologies studied in this report, BECCS has the greatest maturity and there are no major practical barriers to its introduction into today’s energy system. The presence of a primary product will support early deployment."[16]

According to the OECD, "Achieving lower concentration targets (450 ppm) depends significantly on the use of BECCS".[17]


Biochar is created by the pyrolysis of biomass, and is under investigation as a method of carbon sequestration.

Enhanced weathering

Enhanced weathering refers to chemical approach to remove carbon dioxide involving land or ocean based techniques. Examples of land based enhanced weathering techniques are in-situ carbonation of silicates. Ultramafic rock, for example, has the potential to store thousands of years worth of CO2 emissions according to one estimate.[citation needed] Ocean based techniques involve alkalinity enhancement, such as, grinding, dispersing and dissolving olivine, limestone, silicates, or calcium hydroxide to address ocean acidification and CO2 sequestration. Enhanced weathering is considered as one of the least expensive of geoengineering options. One example of a research project on the feasibility of enhanced weathering is the CarbFix project in Iceland.[citation needed]

Direct air capture

Carbon dioxide can be removed from ambient air through chemical processes, sequestered, and stored. One proposed method is by so-called artificial trees.[18][19] This concept, proposed by climate scientist Wallace S. Broecker and science writer Robert Kunzig,[20] imagines huge numbers of artificial trees around the world to remove ambient CO2. The technology is now being pioneered by Klaus Lackner, a researcher at the Earth Institute, Columbia University,[21] whose artificial tree technology can suck up to 1,000 times more CO2 from the air than real trees can,[citation needed] at a rate of about one ton of carbon per day if the artificial tree is approximately the size of an actual tree.[22][23] The CO2 would be captured in a filter and then removed from the filter and stored.

The chemistry used is a variant of that described below, as it is based on sodium hydroxide. However, in a more recent design proposed by Klaus Lackner, the process can be carried out at only 40 °C by using a polymer-based ion exchange resin, which takes advantage of changes in humidity to prompt the release of captured CO2, instead of using a kiln. This reduces the energy required to operate the process.[24]

Another substance which can be used are Metal-organic frameworks (or MOF's).[25] A special MOF has been made specifically for locking CO² by Joeri Denayer.[26]

In 2008, the Discovery Channel covered[27] the work of David Keith,[28] of University of Calgary, who built a tower, 4 feet wide and 20 feet tall (1.2×6.1 meters), with a fan at the bottom that sucks air in, which comes out again at the top. In the process, about half the CO2 is removed from the air.

This device uses the chemical process described in detail below. The system demonstrated on the Discovery Channel was a 1/90,000th scale test system of the capture section; the reagents are regenerated in a separate facility. The main costs of a full plant will be the cost to build it, and the energy input to regenerate the chemicals and produce a pure stream of CO2.

To put this into perspective, people in the U.S. emit about 20 tonnes of CO2 per person annually.[citation needed] In other words, each person in the U.S. would require a tower like the one featured by the Discovery Channel to remove this amount of CO2 from the air, requiring an annual 2 Megawatt-hours of electricity to operate it. By comparison, a refrigerator consumes about 1.2 Megawatt-hours annually (2001 figures).[29] But, by combining many small systems such as this into one large system, the construction costs and energy use can be reduced.

It has been proposed that the Solar updraft tower to generate electricity from thermal air currents also be used at the same time for amine gravity scrubbing of CO2.[30] Some heat would be required to regenerate the amine.

Finally, a similar CO² scrubber has also been build by Carbon Engineering. Besides simply focusing on capturing the CO², the company also puts emphasis on reuse of the CO², for example in the production of fuels, which would thus be carbon-neutral.[31][32]

Example CO2 scrubbing chemistry

Calcium oxide

Calcium oxide (quicklime) will absorb CO2 from atmospheric air mixed with steam at 400 °C (forming calcium carbonate) and release it at 1,000 °C. This process, proposed by Steinfeld, can be performed using renewable energy from thermal concentrated solar power.[33] Quicklime is made by burning limestone to release the CO2 within it. Quicklime is mixed with sand for brick building as mortar, where it hardens by absorption of CO2.

Sodium hydroxide

Zeman and Lackner outlined a specific method of air capture using sodium hydroxide.[34] Carbon Engineering, a Calgary, Alberta firm founded in 2009 and partially funded by Bill Gates, is developing a process to capture carbon dioxide in a solution of sodium hydroxide with a pilot plant planned for 2014 with hopes to capture CO2 at a cost of $100 a ton.[35]

Economic issues

A crucial issue for CDR methods is their cost, which differs substantially among the different technologies: some of these are not sufficiently developed to perform cost assessments. The American Physical Society estimates the costs for direct air capture to be $600/tonne with optimistic assumptions.[36] The IEA Greenhouse Gas R&D Programme and Ecofys provides an estimate that 3.5 billion tonnes could be removed annually from the atmosphere with BECCS (Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage) at carbon prices as low as €50,[37] whereas a report from Biorecro and the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute estimates costs "below €100" per tonne for large scale BECCS deployment.[4]

Risks, problems and criticisms

CDR is slow to act, and requires a long-term political and engineering program to effect.[38] CDR is even slower to take effect on acidified oceans. In a Business as usual concentration pathway, the deep ocean will remain acidified for centuries, and as a consequence many marine species are in danger of extinction.[39]

See also


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