Technological advances in removing carbon dioxide directly from the air have made significant strides but do not give countries and industries a free pass to burn fossil fuels without regard for the ensuing emissions, a US Department of Energy official said Sept. 9, a day after the launch of the world's largest direct air capture plant in Iceland.
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"Because it's technically feasible to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere does not give us the allowance of business as usual and burning fossil fuels 24/7," Jennifer Wilcox, acting assistant secretary for the DOE's Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, said at the US Energy Association's advanced energy technology forum.
Technologies exist today, such as carbon capture and storage, that can make the use of fossil fuels for electricity generation and fuels more sustainable with fewer emissions, she said. "So carbon dioxide removal and things like direct air capture should really be used very strategically in order to offset emissions that are hard to avoid," like those produced by the aviation, agriculture and shipping sectors.
Path to net zero
She made this point while also touting Swiss start-up Climeworks AG's milestone launch of the Orca direct air capture plant which, through a partnership with Icelandic carbon storage firm Carbfix, will suck up to 4,000 mt of CO2 out of the air per year and deposit it underground.
"The interesting part is that in just three years, they scaled that approach up by about 10 times ... and they've cut the costs in half too through that scale up," Wilcox said.
The plant's capacity is equivalent to the annual emissions from about 790 cars, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will require the removal of 100 billion to 1 trillion mt of carbon from the atmosphere by the end of the century.
The DOE is working on a suite of approaches to CO2 removal that would pull carbon associated with the US' dependence on fossil fuels that has been accumulating in the atmosphere, Wilcox said.
Those approaches include using minerals such as magnesium and calcium that naturally remove carbon from the air but also finding ways to speed those natural processes; improving forest management, which has the co-benefit of reducing fire risks, and developing strategies to chemically take carbon from the air, she added.
Achieving net-zero emissions requires understanding that "for every carbon dioxide molecule we put into the atmosphere, we have to be able to recognize we've got to pull it back out," Wilcox said. "It means that, first and foremost, we have to decarbonize in every sector."
Failing to deploy emissions-reduction tools like CCS allows those emissions to enter the atmosphere and "the reality is that the CO2 in the atmosphere is 100 times more dilute than the CO2 in a natural gas-fired power plant, 300 times more dilute than a coal plant," she said. "So we really need to recognize that if we can avoid the emissions today, we should do that."
DOE's fossil energy laboratory has been working with Wilcox's office to develop technologies for carbon management, Brian Anderson, director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory, said at the USEA event.
"For us, it's about quantifying and mitigating carbon emissions, developing the carbon-reducing technologies like CCS and plant efficiency, and ... using our carbon more wisely as we move technologies on to the market and onto the grid," Anderson said.
With a core mission of moving technologies to market, Anderson said the lab has 900 different partnerships with 600 different institutions around the country and the globe.