This Gasoline Is Made of Carbon Sucked From the Air

A Harvard-affiliated Canadian company is making a liquid fuel that is carbon neutral, and they hope the economics will be in their favor.

This fuel was made out of carbon dioxide from the air, plus hydrogen. Its backers hope it will help in the fight against climate change.

Imagine driving up to your local gas station and being able to choose between regular, premium, or carbon-free gasoline.

Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company, is already making a liquid fuel by sucking carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere and combining it with hydrogen from water. This is an engineering breakthrough on two fronts: A potentially cost-effective way to take CO2 out of the atmosphere to fight climate change and a potentially cost-competitive way to make gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel that doesn’t add any additional CO2 to the atmosphere.

“This isn’t going to save the world from the impacts of climate change, but it’s going to be a big step on the path to a low-carbon economy,” said David Keith, a Harvard Professor of Applied Physics and founder of Carbon Engineering. Keith said capturing CO2 from the air and making fuel didn’t require scientific breakthroughs per se as much as $30 million, eight years of engineering, and a “million little details” to get the process right.

Getting it right also meant keeping the costs below $100 for each ton of CO2 removed from the atmosphere. The design and engineering cost of the pilot project that’s been running since 2015 in Squamish, British Columbia, was published today in the peer-reviewed energy journal Joule. The company used existing industrial processes to scale up and reduce costs.

“Our paper shows the costs and engineering for a full-scale plant that could capture one million tons of CO2 a year,” Keith said.

Removing Carbon: Why It Matters

Until now, the costs of CO2 removal, or what’s known as “direct air capture,” were believed to be at least $600 per ton. That was far too much to be useful in sucking large amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Every year the world burns enough fossil fuels to add close to 40 billion tonnes of CO2. However, keeping global warming to less than 2 degrees C (the international target to avoid the most dangerous impacts) will likely require “negative emissions”—some way of taking lots of CO2 out of the atmosphere and storing it permanently, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Carbon Can't Hide Anymore

Still, even at $100 per ton, there aren’t enough CO2 buyers right now. So the company decided to make a carbon-neutral liquid fuel, said Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering. The captured CO2 is combined with hydrogen, which is made through the electrolysis of water. While the process requires a lot of electricity, the pilot plant in Squamish uses renewable hydro power. The resulting synthetic fuel can be blended or used on its own as gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel. When it’s burned it emits the same amount of CO2 that went into making it, so it’s effectively carbon neutral.

“It costs more than a barrel of oil right now, but in places with a price on carbon of $20 a ton we’re competitive,” Oldham said in an interview.

Carbon Engineering's equipment pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at a test plant in British Columbia.

A carbon price is a cost applied to industries that emit carbon pollution. British Columbia has a carbon price of C$35 a ton, and all of Canada will have a $10 price in September that will rise to C$50 in 2022. No U.S. atate has joined in yet, but Washington State may be the first to charge a $15 carbon pollution feeif a new ballot measure passes. The U.S. is facing climate and air pollution costs reaching at least $360 billion annually, according to a 2017 report.

“I’m excited by the project. The numbers in Joule look good,” said Klaus Lackner of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University, who pioneered the concept of direct air capture of CO2 in the 1990s. Carbon Engineering has proven that it can be done and be cost-effective, and that is a very important step for the industry, Lackner said in an interview.


John Reganold of Washington State University stands by a deep road cut in eastern Washington’s Palouse region, examining the exposed layers of ancient soil.


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The Li Kaixin family harvests rice near Sheng Cun, a village in China’s southern Yunnan province. The region is famous for its extensively terraced hills, which capture water for farming. A portion of the area has been declared a World Heritage Site.


Hillsides in Fo Tang Yan—a village in China’s heavily degraded Loess Plateau region—are stippled with young date trees in terraces. The trees are part of an enormous restoration project intended to reverse centuries of erosion in the region.


Assorted prairie grasses and sunflowers sink their roots deep into soil near Salina, Kansas. These perennials’ root systems grow and strengthen for years, preventing erosion and storing water. The thick sunflower roots in the photo are six feet long.


Mud bricks dry on the farm of Yacouba Sawadogo, who lives in northern Burkina Faso. Sawadogo has pioneered the modern use of zaï, small, foot-deep pits salted with manure, to promote plant growth and restore areas previously thought lost to desertification.


Pennsylvania’s Rodale Institute has researched organic agriculture techniques for decades, paying close attention to soil. Organically farmed soil (left) maintains its structure and holds water well, while conventionally farmed soil (right) readily falls apart.


The Loess Plateau of China is home to the worst erosion on Earth, which has carved out steep, alien-looking gullies in the region’s fragile silt. Scientists largely attribute the erosion to centuries of overgrazing and intensive farming.


Soil fungi proliferate on a petri dish in an Iowa State University lab. Scientists have found thousands of fungi species in soil, and many partner with plants to form mycorrhizae, fungal meshes that improve plants’ ability to absorb water and nutrients.


Spencer Yeoman, a farmer from Davis, Illinois, demonstrates horse plowing at a farm technology conference in Wisconsin. Humans have been using animal power to till the soils for thousands of years.


Barren soils surround the Dead Cities, dozens of abandoned, ancient Byzantine ruins that once held prosperous communities in what is now Syria. Soil erosion degraded the region’s fertility, probably hurting its ability to support large human populations.


In the villages around Keita, Niger, locals and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization have worked to restore land ravaged by droughts in the 1980s. To date, local villagers—mostly women—have reclaimed desertified lands by planting 18 million trees.


A harvester rumbles across the Palouse of Washington, an area of loess hills made of wind-blown dust. The hills are extremely fertile and exceptionally good for growing dryland wheat.


A person stands on the grounds of Yacouba Sawadogo’s farm near the village of Gourga, Burkina Faso. The UN’s Global Soil Partnership has found that the majority of Earth’s soils are in fair, poor, or very poor conditions—underscoring our need to conserve and protect them.

Tap images for captions

The next step is to have a number of scaled-up plants producing hundreds of thousands of barrels of carbon-free fuel, to drive down costs further, much as solar and wind energy costs have plummeted over the past decades as scale has risen. As prices fall, more governments may get on board with the idea of pulling CO2 out of the air.

“We will need a trillion-dollar industry to [keep warming below 2 degrees C]. That seems like a lot, but today’s airline industry is larger,” Lackner said.

Carbon Engineering is building a larger plant, utilizing low-cost renewable energy, that will produce 200 barrels of synthetic fuel a day. It should be operational in 2020, said Keith. The company is also looking to license their technology.

“We think this is very scalable and will have world-wide markets,” says Oldham. “All you need is air and water as feedstocks, and some electricity.” And a license to their tech. 


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