In west Texas, amid one of the most productive oilfields in the continent, a Canadian company is building a plant that is expected to extract from the air 1 million tonnes per year of carbon being pumped out of the ground all around it.
Carbon Engineering's groundbreaking plant is one of many projects hoping to help in the fight against climate change by turning its main driver — carbon dioxide — into a useful product that can be profitably removed from the atmosphere.
“We're pulling the CO2 back down,” CEO Steve Oldham said in a recent interview.
Carbon Engineering is already pulling CO2 from the air and turning it into fuel at its pilot plant in Squamish, B.C. In Halifax, CarbonCure Technologies is injecting CO2 into concrete.
Many companies already inject CO2 underground to force more oil to the surface — which, if done right, can result in carbon-negative oil. Other companies are using the gas to create useful chemicals, carbon nanotubes or plastics.
“There's a number of technologies we're trying to advance,” said Wes Jickling of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance. The group is helping run a Carbon XPrize with a $20-million award for the best conversion of CO2 into a saleable product.
The market for such products has been estimated at $1 trillion a year.
The question is whether that's a market adequate to drive innovation and construction fast enough to start reducing atmospheric CO2 before global temperatures rise past 1.5 degrees. That's little more than a decade, according to the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The technology for burying carbon underground, known as sequestration, is well understood and is being used at full-scale sites in Alberta and Saskatchewan. But in 2018, the British Royal Society found that the pace of building such facilities needs to speed up by at least 100 times to meet the UN's climate target.
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