Most of us are aware that we’re in the midst of an energy and environmental crisis, two problems for which a number of efforts are being deployed in an attempt to find a solution. For example, solar panels are commonplace, and various efforts are being made to capture CO2 from the atmosphere in order to limit its detrimental effects on the environment and human health. Neither of these efforts, however, are able to meet the high-energy needs of heavy transportation such as airplanes and other freight modes, as well as some industrial equipment. So, what do we need to do?
According to David Keith, chief scientist and founder of Carbon Engineering, we need a method for taking carbon free energy from solar power and turning it into fuel which is transportable, storable, has a high energy density, and can be compatible with existing infrastructure. This is exactly what he’s working on, and he’s accomplishing it by taking solar power and combining it with CO2 from the atmosphere. It is from this method that the synthesis of fuels that are chemically the same as existing fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and kerosene is made possible, and it’s all being done cleanly, without exploiting fossil fuels.
Tune in to hear Keith explain the ins and outs of what his company is establishing, and the promise it may hold for the future. Learn more by visiting carbonengineering.com
Richard Jacobs: Hello, this is Richard Jacobs with the future tech podcast. My guest is David Keith. He is a chief scientist and board member and founder of carbon engineering. The website is carbonengineering.com. So, David, thank you for coming.
David Keith: Thanks. Great to be here.
Richard Jacobs: I had read the article where they talked about the direct air capture. So pull I guess carbon dioxide out of the air. Can we talk a little bit about that? What out of that technology work and what are some of the nuances of it?
David Keith: Direct air capture just to process of concentrating CO2 of taking in atmospheric air and having as the output pure stream of carbon dioxide, obviously this takes energy and capital to do that. So the fundamental idea of doing it is old or been industrial processes that have done some version of air capture for a long time, for example, a step before cryogenic air separation if you want to make are gone. But the idea of doing it as something relevant for the climate to get carbon dioxide is relatively a new idea and we’re one of the couples of companies that are really kind of seriously pursue technology to bring that into the commercial marketplace.
Richard Jacobs: Well, I don’t know if people know, but what are the uses of pure carbon dioxide? I mean it’s great if they can get it out of the air, but how is it used industrially?
David Keith: I can tell you that but I think it’s really more useful to start with a problem than use. The carbon dioxide used for carbonating beverages, for food preparation things and turn to hatch, well recovery. But I think the point is that there are some reasons why you want to take CO2 out of the air had to do with the fact that you go in and out of the air. Our goal is not simply to supply carbon dioxide. In fact, there’s no way we could beat the price of carbon dioxide you get from a well because you can drill wells in the ground and carbon dioxide reservoirs get down very cheaply. We don’t think we compete with that, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to solve certain specific problems related to decarbonizing our energy system and to climate.
Richard Jacobs: Can you go into the methodology? How do you pull carbon dioxide out of the air? So just like you’re literally a filter that molecule goes through or is it a chemical process?
David Keith: Our process is an aqueous chemical process. The core of our process is aqueous chemistry. CO2 is a weak acid. We capture it in a strong base solution of potassium carbonate. Sorry, I’m tired. I have done this for a while.
Richard Jacobs: Okay.
David Keith: What level of technical detail you want versus kind of commercial detail.
Richard Jacobs: Well, essentially what I’m hearing you say is that carbon dioxide can be encouraged to go into a liquid and that pulls it out of the air and puts it into a liquid.
David Keith: It’s a two-step basis. So the core of our process, chemically, carbon dioxide which is a weak acid, is captured in a strong base potassium hydroxide. And that’s an aqueous solution, water-based solution. And the absolute core of getting cheap direct air capture is to have the contact or the thing that first makes contact between the atmospheric air and whatever it is going to pull the CO2 out. That thing has to have low capital cost and low operating costs. And that’s what we’ve done by adapting commercial air cooling technology, the technology you see for buildings and industries for just exchanging heat between hot water and the cool air and that technology we use for this purpose. That’s of course just the first step. The second step is you need to do regeneration. You’d take the CO2 out of that solution and make the strong basic solution again so you can capture more CO2 and so you’ve got pure CO2 out. So the core of our processes, two-step process with a contact and then regeneration.
Richard Jacobs: It seems like this would be good to put on the end of the smokestacks. Furnaces, refineries, so right there you’re getting a nice source of a lot of carbon dioxide and you go scrub it out before it even goes in the atmosphere perhaps.
David Keith: No. So that’s convenient for you to capture in storage. There is a set of technologies for capturing CO2 from power plants that have been existing for decades. We don’t compete with those. It’s quite a different set of technologies and different engineering problems to capture from ambient air. Where you’re at 400 parts per million that to capture from a powerpoint and we were at 10%, it’s always going to be cheaper to capture from the power plant in general. But it’s fundamentally different process design.
Richard Jacobs: You’re dealing with much lower concentrations. So basically I’m sure a lot harder you have to process massive amounts of air, right?
David Keith: Correct. So it’s harder. It’s not, I think it’s much harder as you might think. I mean, so the advantages you have with direct air capture are that you always have the same air, the years always there all the time. And so you can build a process to do that. But the bottom line is this is not the same as capture for power plants. I think this whole conversation is sort of in the technical lead and not dealing with what the goal is. So the way I see it, we’re thinking our objective is to deal with you figured out how to answer the questions. But I feel like we’re not kind of addressing what the problem we’re trying to solve.
Richard Jacobs: Yeah. Well. Okay. So we’ll get to that. So carbon dioxide concentrations, I mean, from what I know they’ve gone up quite a bit. It’s all tied to global warming, global climate change. So I would guess that a good result would be what to ambient levels of carbon dioxide down from 400 parts per million to 200 or 250. What’s the overall goal of technology?
David Keith: Well, the goal, so the central near term objective for our technology is to enable E carbonization at the heavy parts of the transportation sector and the way to think about it is to make a bridge between cheap solar power and the high energy density fuels we need to power airplanes and other parts of the transportation sector that are hard to electrify. So stepping back, what we know is that solar power is getting ridiculously cheap. That’s true. Not everywhere. Silver on rooftops isn’t necessarily that cheaper cost-effective, but large industrial solar photovoltaics in really great locations, high sun locations are getting to produce energy cost is cheaper, not just cheaper than any other low carbon energy, but can be cheaper than any other electric energies and make on the planet. It’s really stunning and there seems to be no reason that cost trend won’t continue, but getting cheap carbon-free silver power doesn’t magically solve the world’s energy problems. For one thing, it’s only there during the day. It’s only in some parts of the world and we can’t electrify everything. So for things that are already electrified, that works well I think we will electrify a lot of light-duty vehicle transportation. But there are lots of heavy parts of the transportation system where electrification will be harder. And there are other industrial uses where electrification is hard. So I really like to have is a method for taking that energy that you’ve got, the carbon-free energy left from solar power and turned it into fuel. Something that is transportable, storable, has high energy density and ideally is compatible with existing infrastructures. And we have a way to make that fuel that way is to take cheap solar power or combine it with CO2 you got from the atmosphere and synthesize fuels, fuels that are chemically the same as existing fuels. And if you can make gasoline or diesel aviation kerosene what have you using processes that are called gas to liquids. The hard part is doing the CO2 capture from the air and going from solar power to hydrogen, so that’s the central goal is this idea of what we call air to fuels, which is really about enabling us to indirectly make if few like stored solar fuels. That could be used say for airplanes and these fuels would be completely compatible with existing infrastructure to be chemically the same fuel, but they don’t come from the ground. They’re not fossil fuels. And they allow you to have real carbon-neutral transportation at large scale.
Richard Jacobs: On a net basis you’re capturing X amount of carbon from the atmosphere. How much is going back into the atmosphere once the fuel is burned? Is there a zero net there or is it positive the negative?
David Keith: The actual carbon that’s in the fuel it’s one for one. So, when you burn fuels, all the carbon within the fuel goes into the air. But when you synthesize those fuels from the air, you’re using carbon from the air. So it’s one for one, you’re basically just using the carbon as a carrier. The carbon is a package for the energy.
Richard Jacobs: How much energy is required to do this recapture itself? Can solar be used to power that?
David Keith: For sure. Solar can be used for powering it. And the amount of energy depends on exactly the end product, but call it something like between nine and seven or so, or six, kilo Jules of energy per ton of CO2 delivered. But I think the important thing to say that number may not be instantly meaningful to your listeners, but that’s actually comparatively small compared to the energy content of fuels. That’s the key thing. So if you think about the total energy content need to make synthetic fuels, you’ve got the energy content need to actually put into the fuel, which has to go from CO2 back to hydrocarbons and then you go up the add added energy needed to capture CO2 from the air and that added energy is pretty small. Say 10 or 15%.
Richard Jacobs: I think this is great. I mean this would reduce reliance on extracting new fuels, new fossil fuels, and then it will be a net-zero contribution essentially. You’re pulling carbon out, going backward. They’re burned, but at least it doesn’t add.
David Keith: Yeah. So that’s one of the central applications of direct capture. And the other application is simply to do carbon removal, to get paid to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. So where the CO2 is captured and then put into DPT logical storage. And those are the two basic applications. So the director captures at technology, the two primary applications we see are these synthetic fuels and large scale removal.
Richard Jacobs: Is there going to be a need for CO2 storage? Deep storage of it, if this scales up sounds like they wouldn’t be.
David Keith: If you want to do carbon removal, you need to have the storage. Yes. If you want to do air to fuel, there’s no storage.
Richard Jacobs: So on a scale. How much of an impact do you think that this can make? How much of the demand is there for this?
David Keith: Well, I think it’s one of the few things I can think of that really could be scaled to be a significant fraction of that total demand for the hard decarbonized part of the liquid fuel economy. So I’m not claiming that our company will magically do that. But I think if you think about this is a sort of D piece of the energy infrastructure of the planet, which could be, there’d be lots of competition to provide it. The idea that as one of the ways to decarbonize, the harder decarbonize parts of the energy system, will to cheap solar plus CO2 to fuels. I think there’s no reason there’s no sort of fundamental scaling block does that not being, you know, taking a big chunk of that energy demand. So the way to think about is total energy demand for transportation is a little less than third, a third of total energy. Transportation, something like half or a little less or more. Most likely the vehicles will get electrified, but I think the other part is harder electrify. So I think it would as being something like a third or so of the total transportation use depends on how other things compete. So think of that as about 10% of total primary energy.
Richard Jacobs: What is difficult to electrify. You said airplanes or what else in transportation?
David Keith: Airplanes, heavy shipping, heavy freight modes. Some industrial equipment.
Richard Jacobs: I guess the nice thing is those are concentrated users of fuel and concentrated remitters So, a big freight liner would lend itself to having the direct carbon capture audit, but the fuel used to supply it. Yeah, you’re getting from those direct air capture. But it’s better than having millions and millions of individual little cars.
David Keith: We’re not talking about building the direct capture machine on a ship or an airplane. We’re talking about building the machine where there’s cheap solar power and construction costs are low to make fuel. And then the fuel gets moved around with a regular fuel infrastructure, which is really cheap and easy.
Richard Jacobs: But the coolest thing is you’re creating this fuel, you’re gathering it from non-concentrated sources. You’re concentrating it in the fuel. Then even when it gets burned now you can rely on traditional carbon capture to grab it there instead of, you know.
David Keith: I don’t think conventional carbon capture would be useful for airplanes or ships. Conventional carbon capture really makes sense for large fixed sources like power plants or steel mills.
Richard Jacobs: Well at the very least it’d be a concentration of emissions over that of passenger vehicles for I see that as good understanding. I understand how you play into the process and it all makes sense. I’m just remarking that it works well with the existing systems. What are the fuels that you can create with the director capture?
David Keith: Well, that’s a great question. And the answer that turns out to be the easy part. The hard part is getting hydrogen at lower half cost and getting CO2 from the air, low enough cost. Then you do something called gas to liquids technologies, which are similar technologies are used nowadays to turn natural gas into liquids. And these technologies really exist on a large scale already. There are something like 150,000 barrels a day globally of gas to liquids technology. And once you do gas to liquids, you make something, depending on how you do at least one pathway, you make what called a Fisher crop liquid. And then in the refinery, you can make those into really any products you want so you can make them into gasoline in principle or into aviation kerosene that the thing you need for airplanes or diesel in practice or some complex details and like which pathway you choose. And there are other pathways like meth and all the gasoline. But an important thing to say is all of that is existing industrial technology, which we do not have to invent or bring to the market. It’s already proven at full industrial scale. What we’re doing is providing different inputs to that technology.
Richard Jacobs: Okay. So what are some of the stumbling blocks to doing this? What kind of conditions do you need? Can you locate direct air capture anywhere? Are there certain climates or conditions that it’s more beneficial?
David Keith: Yeah, so in principle director capture means your independent location. Of course, any practical air capture technology is going to have places where it works better and less well. So we need a fair amount of water. We need land, we need energy. We don’t want to be in super dry conditions. So there is a range of places that work well for us. We don’t work well if we’re a long way below freezing. So there’s a very wide range of places that our technology is applicable but not everywhere. But there are other capture technologies beyond ours. I think that the main point is the least is we see the market, the hard part of the market is not finding new locations that could work. The hard part of the market is the normal thing of getting a new business started. You, you need to finance initial large plants. And for that, you need off-take agreements and financing and a regulatory structure that makes sense and so on.
Richard Jacobs: Okay. Where are you at with this? So you do you have any number of plants operating or is this more bench scale? How far along is this?
David Keith: In between those two, so it’s much bigger than bench scale. There’s been a large pilot operating at Squamish British Columbia for quite a few years. The company’s now like 70% or so company. And we are now in the middle of negotiations looking to finance the first large plants. These are the plants that would order half a million tons a year of CO2. So this is a plastic cost, a good fraction of $1 billion. So when the mill of trying to do that financing now where we have several different kinds of potential sites and off-takers and machines into which those times might make sense.
Richard Jacobs: Would you want to or need to co-locate with a gigantic solar farm or does that not matter?
David Keith: It matters. It matters for there to fuels. I’ll have to be exactly co-located and wind power is also relevant. I think solar is more in the long run but wind power matters as well. So yes, absolutely. We’ve been working with. So when suppliers or even companies that do both and to provide you contracts that have very high availability. So yes, so you don’t necessarily have to be co-located though for some regulatory machine-like California there are some requirements for co-location and we are definitely looking at that.
Richard Jacobs: Okay. Very good. Well, what’s the expectation for the next three to five years? You’re going to have the plant, you’re talking about up and running or is it going to take longer?
David Keith: You don’t take longer than that? Any big industrial plant, a big industrial plant like this takes at least three years from the actual starting on when all the financing is done and you finish the core of the full project engineering phase. And we’re right now have financing for the, what’s called the front end engineering and design study. So that’s begun, which is very exciting. That was announced sometime over the summer. But I think there’s no way we have a full commercial plant all operating in three years. My goal would be to see the financing in place for a commercial plant next year. So we can really move directly from the front end engineering design study into the beginning of the procurement of the construction phase.
Richard Jacobs: So what’s more realistic until the plant opens its doors and starts running?
David Keith: I’d say about five years. I’d say round numbers for about five years. It could be more like four, it could be a little longer. That’s the kind of timescale these big industrial plants take.
Richard Jacobs: What was the first ones operating? Is that going to make it a lot? Will they have fast track other plants and get it out there?
David Keith: Well, for sure. And I don’t think it’s just that we wait all the way until the first time it’s operating because there’s some intermediate, smaller things that we’ll be operating. And also I think once we have successfully financed and gone into the full construction engineering of a large plant probably that will already reduce risks enough in the eyes of other investors that will then be able to finance other plans. So that’s what we’d hope to do.
Richard Jacobs: And which other countries that are showing interest or is it just industry players, who really wants this?
David Keith: So there’s an amazing amount of interest now in direct air capture and in carbon removal I’d say, it seems like the interest is driven by ultimately all by the need to reduce CO2 emissions to reduce climate risks. And that need is appearing in different regular machines in different ways. But so in the United States, things like the California low carbon fuel standard, which you know, has an explicit regulation on the well it’s called the well to wheels emissions and fuels and they basically add on top of that a way that they, California, no carbon fuel standard LCFS price can get applied directly to direct air capture removals. So that’s one of the most important ones. There’s a set of things called 45 Q in the U S that also provide explicit tax incentive with an extra incentive for direct air capture to pure storage, which is something we’re pursuing. But that’s just the US similar to the users of low carbon fuel standard descended revolution in Canada. There’s partial discussion about making this a kind of a UK priority. There’s CRP and discussions are, there’s a fair amount happening globally about the governments finding ways to produce regulations, these kind of, not specifically our company, but find ways that will incent these kind of carbon removal or ultra-low carbon fuel systems.
Richard Jacobs: Okay. Well. Very good. Well, what’s the best way for people to get in touch to ask questions?
David Keith: To go to the company website carbonengineering.com and there’s lots of background information, white papers, videos and so on and contacting.
Richard Jacobs: Well, very good. Well David, thank you for coming on the podcast. I appreciate it.
David Keith: Great. Thanks a whole lot. Take care. Bye. Bye.
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