The Carbon Capture Fantasy

Listen to this episode

S1: I’m going to be totally honest, I’ve been feeling pretty down about climate change lately. I kind of felt like the Glasgow summit fizzled. There was the news that a key ice shelf in Antarctica is melting faster than expected. Then there were the awful tornadoes over the weekend. So when I read Clive Thompson story about a potential solution to climate change, or at least some technology that might be helpful, I was immediately hooked. Clive story, which ran in Mother Jones, is about something called Direct Air Carbon Capture, or DC.

Advertisement

S2: Direct Air Carbon Capture is basically the art and science of extracting CO2 from the air.

S1: Think of a giant vacuum. But for carbon,

S2: you create a machine that uses a chemical process to bind CO2 and turn it into something that you can then store somewhere. Maybe a shove it really deep in the ground. So it’s gone. Maybe you turn it into something else that you can use

S1: on its face. The idea seems kind of ridiculous sucking carbon out of the air. Sounds like a desperate plot point from an exhausted sci fi writer, but it’s actually something that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wants humans to think about in their 2018 report. The IPCC said so far, our efforts just to lower carbon emissions aren’t enough.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: The IPCC said we are going to need to remove carbon from from the atmosphere, and we’re going to need to remove an awful lot of it from the atmosphere. That really lit the fire that was the gun going off at the beginning of the race.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Today on the show, the race to suck carbon out of the air. The technology exists, but to do it well requires money will. And what environmentalists consider a deal with the devil. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next? TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick around. First, the basics. Carbon dioxide absorbs and traps heat, making it the key culprit in global warming. The idea of removing it from the air at any kind of scale requires both money and political cooperation. But even before that, it requires technology. Scientists and companies are trying a couple of different approaches, all of which involve getting the carbon to stick to an absorbent substance called absorbent, like a chemical sponge.

Advertisement

S2: So at the high end, you have a company like carbon engineering, which is up in Canada, and the way it works is that they have like a big machine that’s like the size of a building. And it’s got a huge fan on top of it, and it’s sucking air in like, this is a great big fan, you know, like six 10 feet across and it’s blowing all that air down into a great big pool of a liquid solvent, and it’s reacting that’s sucking up all the CO2 and holding it there. And then once that’s got lots of CO2 in that sorbent, then they use a process that needs to go to very, very high temperatures, hundreds and hundreds of degrees. But it turns it into the CO2 that you can sort of store, you know, in a pressurized gas. It uses a big process to capture a lot of it. But the downside is that it needs a lot of energy to run that machine. You have to burn natural gas, you know, to create that heat, or you have to have a really a ton of clean energy from windmills and solar farm. That’s that’s one model.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: What’s the other model?

S2: The other model is to have much smaller machines that you could kind of tuck anywhere that use a lot less energy, which is great, but they also don’t suck quite as much CO2 out of the air.

S1: Basically, picture a machine the size of a furnace that you could have it just about any industrial site. Then there’s an even smaller device. The brainchild of Professor Klaus Lackner, Clive went to Lautner’s lab in Arizona to see how the idea works and quick disclosure here. Lochner works at Arizona State, which is a partner in Slate’s future tense project,

S2: and it’s interesting because it is entirely passive, Klaus Lackner said. You know, I want this thing to run on almost no energy, so I’m just going to create like a tree of these disks that stands like, you know, 30 feet high and the wind just blows, you know, air passed it at and that reacts with, you know, the sorbent inside these disks. And then once every hour or so, when the disks are full of CO2, it sort of collapses down almost like an umbrella kind of and squeezes it out with a little bit of heat. They’re so low energy that, you know, he imagines you might need tens of millions of them, but you could put them literally anywhere

Advertisement

S1: if any one of these approaches works and can be massively scaled up. It’s possible to imagine a future where humans are actively removing carbon from the atmosphere. Direct air capture is this thing that sounds very sci fi when we’re thinking about it in the public policy arena. There seemed like there are two big questions. What would it take scientifically to do this at scale and what would it take practically and politically?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: What you’d need to really do this, to be clear, is you’d need like an almost wartime mobilization of resources that you maybe saw in, like in the Second World War or something like that. And there are lots and lots of choke points. You’d need tons of that sorbent chemical, right? That’s that’s a lot of that’s a lot of that chemical. You’d need to figure out a lot of issues that we can talk about, which is where do you put all that carbon? What do you do that stuff? But, you know, could you? But just on the question of could you get it out of the sky? You know, could you do that at scale? Yes, I think you could.

Advertisement

S1: On a practical level, even saying there was the global will for this, it seems like there are three big sort of structural hurdles cost transportation and storage. First of all, like how much does it cost to do this?

S2: The estimate that I most often heard is that right now? The state of the art, the best they can do, the cheapest they can do is about 500 dollars per ton of CO2, right? Everyone who sort of looks at this field basically says that that is way too much, way too expensive to be able to to do what we need to do because the IPCC was talking about removing. Ten gigatons a year or thereabouts, which is billions of tons. Right, so at, you know, at 500 per ton, you’re talking about trillions and trillions of dollars. So you need to bring that price down a lot. So what price does it need to get to? I mean, no one really knows. But if it were around $100 per ton, then there starts to be like a more of a market for this stuff. Like you would now find people who are willing to buy that captured CO2 and do something with it. You would now find governments that are willing to say, OK, we’ll we’ll just pay that upfront to shove it in the ground. If you got it down to $50 or $10 a tonne, then you’re really talking, you know, like then it becomes much more affordable for a government to say, OK, let’s let’s get rid of, you know, many, many gigatons a year and we’ll pay for it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I asked Clive how to think about getting the costs down. And he used the example of microprocessors. The first ones were really pricey and not that great. But after government investment and a lot of tinkering, they’re now powerful, cheap and everywhere. But there’s another issue besides cost, and that’s how to move the carbon dioxide once you’ve got it.

S2: The real trick The really hard part is how do you get it from the place that you collected the CO2, the place that you sucked it out of the sky? How do you get it from there to the place that you’re going to shove it into the ground because you know, these machines could be anywhere, you know, they could be again, they could be in Boston, they could be in, you know, out in the desert, in Arizona, they could be all over the place and you need to have a pipeline. And piping CO2 is really not easy because it is a highly pressurized gas. If you if you have a leak, it’s really bad stuff. It’s it’s it really, really erupts with high pressure. It is a asphyxiating gas, so it would it would kill people. And worst of all, it hangs low to the ground. It’s heavier than air if it’s in a dense quantity. So we’ve already had examples of pressurized CO2 gas mains breaking and causing really bad problems where they sent, you know, dozens and dozens of people to the hospital and sickened hundreds of people. So that that problem of the piping, I mean, when you say you have trouble understanding it and imagining it, that’s for good reason. It’s it’s it’s really quite crazy.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: You’re not really selling direct air capture

S2: to me here. Well, I mean, and let me make it a little bit worse by pointing out that like traditionally, pipelines get run through indigenous lands. So, yeah, I am. I am I selling it? I mean, no, I mean, I’m sort of my goal with the story was to paint a very realistic picture of the enormous opportunity, but the enormous challenge here, right? You know, because I’m not saying it would be impossible to do that and if it became. You know, sort of like a we have no other option. Then I guess we would bite the bullet and figure it out. But it’s something you’d want to really think hard and plan for if you’re going to do it, which is sort of a good reason to think about the problems now.

Advertisement

S1: The other level of this story that sort of takes it to another bananas head scratching place is that it seems from your reporting that the only players who could afford to do this, who have a really vested interest in doing this are big oil companies.

S2: Yeah, yeah, this is is the issue that really alarms a lot of environmentalists about direct capture, which is that, you know? Nearly all of the projects that I’ve been telling you about here, Carbon Engineering’s, you know, massive plant, global engineering, smaller little machines. They’re all being developed, you know, hand in glove with oil and gas companies, fossil fuel companies. And why is that? Well, the people who understand how to build things at scale that have to do with energy and how to how to move gases around are the oil and gas companies are, you know, they’ve got decades of experience in this. So they’re the first obvious partners. And some of this has to do with the fact that what do you do with that CO2 when you’ve captured it? Well, we talked about shoving it in the ground to get rid of it. And most of the time when you tell people about carbon capture, you know, direct air carbon capture, they’re like, Yeah, that’s a great idea. Like, well, we’ll suck the CO2 out of the air and we’ll shove it in the ground. So it’s gone like we’re reversing the industrial revolution, right? Everyone loves that. The problem is, is that in the short run, in the short run, I mean, like a decade or more, there’s really no one who’s planning to shove that in the ground. What all of these projects are doing is working with oil and gas companies to do something that creates a market for the re-use of that CO2.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: There is a market right now for CO2, but it’s kind of niche. There’s a company in Texas, for example, that uses it to get the last drops of oil and gas out of nearly empty wells. And it’s something other companies might adopt. And that brings us back to this question of environmentalists having to work with or rely on oil companies. Are the environmentalists or are some environmentalists able to say, OK, this involves a deal with the devil, but it gets us there? Or is it just like, No, that’s a non-starter?

S2: Different environmentalist’s are divided on this. Many of the environmental, as I would say, the majority of them said to me, we think this is a costly distraction. We think that all the money being put into developing direct air capture should just be put into scaling out renewables dramatically right now and building battery technology, right? Innovating on that front there like that is how we decarbonise. We do it by just rapidly throwing everything we can at this and we see all the oil and gas companies out of this process because they are just bad news. Yeah, it’s fine to develop the technology to keep it in pocket, but no way should we use it with these guys because they they argue that oil and gas companies just want this tech to exist as sort of a get out of jail free card, right?

S1: Because it helps them reduce their net emissions.

S2: Yeah, yeah. They could say that, you know, they could start to spin it as well. We’re starting to we’re we’re shoving CO2 in the ground and so we’re reducing emissions, but we’re not actually ceasing to get new oil and gas out of the ground, right? Like it would become this way of saying, Hey, we’re net neutral. You know, we’re we’re creating lots more emissions by selling lots of oil and gas, but we’re also shoving it in the ground, right? They they think that this is this is or even worse, they think that this is like kind of like almost like a fig leaf, right? Like they’ll develop this technology a little bit, but never get serious enough about it. Like it’ll be just sort of a way of saying, Hmm, yeah, yeah. We know we’re working on a tech that’s going to save everything so we can keep on burning all the oil and gas. Just keep on driving the car the way you are right now. Don’t worry, we’re going to take care of this and they won’t be serious about it almost the way that, like, you know, you know, the electric vehicle was invented in the 1990s and then just, you know, and then and then it vanished, right? Because, you know, the car companies were like, we don’t want to do that. So there’s there’s sort of a this is what’s known as the moral hazard argument, right? That like if you start developing a technology, it takes the pressure off of society to decarbonize its energy production. If you think that there is a magic solution coming ten or twenty years now. Then maybe it’s OK to keep burning oil and gas, and maybe we don’t need to aggressively roll out solar and add renewables.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: When we come back, can the world get it together to cooperate? The thing about direct air capture that is so fascinating is how complicated it is not in terms of the tech, but in terms of the moral and ethical equations around it.

S2: Among other things, direct our capture would allow for a certain level of environmental and economic justice insofar as we’re now in a situation where parts of the global south are rapidly trying to expand their economies. And to do that, you need lots and lots of cheap energy right now. The societies, you know, they want to do what we did, which is to burn lots of oil and gas to get themselves as prosperous as possible as quickly as possible. So the progressive argument is, well, you know, maybe it’s up to the the developed countries that made this mess. A lot of this mess to to work on direct our capture and clean up the problem for the countries that we, you know, have kind of trod all over in the last 50 or 100 years. And there’s a moral argument to doing it that way.

S1: Wood Wood doing director capture on a global scale, I guess. Would it be an admission of defeat?

S2: Yeah, absolutely. It would be a complete admission of defeat insofar as it would be us saying to ourselves we couldn’t change the way we lived for decades. We were unwilling to do that. You know, we knew in the in the in the 90s that global warming was coming and we knew that we needed to work on decarbonising the economy as rapidly as possible and rolling out renewables and. And we didn’t do it. We didn’t push for it, you know, and to the extent that a lot of citizens did push hard for it, they faced ferocious opposition from oil and gas companies and from many politicians who were absolutely in their pockets. Right. And so that that is in fact, yes, an admission of defeat.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Where do the oil companies sit on this in terms of, you know, OK, yes. Well, we’ll put our money here or or do we know?

S2: Several people said to me that one of the reasons why they are. Dubious of the motives of oil and gas companies, dubious that they really, really want to do direct our capture at scale is that none of them are really reorienting their spending habits around it, right? Like they’ve got R&D projects. You know, they’ll they’ll they’ll help out. All of these direct our capture companies with their projects. But things only really change when you see what they do with their annual budgets and with their annual budgets are still just drilling for oil. I will say that the way that they actually think that things would really roll out was that the only way that that we’re going to get millions and millions of direct air capture machines make it really cheap is if we don’t just grab that CO2 and shove it in the ground. But for the next 10 or 20 years, we actually turn it back into liquid fuel and burn it again. And when I say to them, you know, that sounds, that sounds, you know, sort of circular like isn’t the point to get it out of the out of the air on the ground there? Like, well, yes, but think of it this way there, like what we’d be doing is decarbonising the internal combustion engine. Hmm.

S1: So you’re still feeding an internal combustion engine, you’re still feeding that that market, but you’re not creating kind of new ones over and over again.

S2: You could call it catch and release, right? We are going to catch the CO2 that comes out of the tailpipe when they burn it with these machines that are all over the world. We’re going to turn it back into into basically gasoline, feed it back in and just keep that loop going so that the idea is we can keep on using all these, all these trucks and all these planes and cars that have internal combustion engines. But we would actually have net zero emissions or or as low as possible emission. It definitely has one benefit in that you would be able to say, OK, we don’t need the entire world to switch over to electric vehicles. But again, you know, it’s like one of these leaps of faith like, OK, you have to trust oil and gas companies that they really want this to happen. They intend this to happen, and they won’t just sort of do the bare minimum while continuing to burn lots of oil and gas.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: It’s not just trusting oil and gas companies. There’s also the hurdle of intergovernmental, maybe even global, cooperation.

S2: A lot of these big dark schemes would sort of work if there were high levels of cooperation and coordination. At the highest levels of government, right? If the highest levels of government really said this is just an absolute top agenda for us, then you could kind of imagine it working in the same way that like in the Second World War, entire economies repurpose themselves around war production without that coordination. The scheme just sounds kind of like a little bit of a Rube Goldberg machine, right? You know, it feels like it feels just to me, like this weird bank shot. You’re leaning back over the over the over the pool table trying to, you know, get this ball to go off that ball, off that ball into the corner. And if you miss one angle, the whole thing doesn’t work.

S1: You’re describing a problem of global import that relies on tremendous scientific knowledge and a lot of political will that is likely to most, you know, devastatingly affect the poorest people. And gee, that sounds a lot like the crisis we are currently in with the coronavirus pandemic, and I have not seen a lot of examples that the globe can come together. Do you have any faith that this is going anywhere here?

S2: The only faith I have is, I guess, the faith that comes from seeing things like solar succeed, right? Progress in decarbonization can happen, you know, in ways that it isn’t easy to spy upfront. One of the reasons why solar got so good as governments gave some subsidies and that that took leadership and that was good, and then that incentivized a marketplace of solar creators to go, Hey, you know, we can make money with this. And you know, and once you get the market going, it can be quite a firm and can be quite productive. I definitely feel gloomy all the time because of the lack of political urgency amongst the folks who run things. But I also know that sometimes things can be working, you know, better than we imagine in different pockets of innovation and and marketplaces and policies. But I I don’t hold out great hope I got to say, I mean, like, I feel like I feel like the certainly in the U.S. supply of classes are so insulated from what their voters actually want that the that the actual quite widespread desire for decarbonising the economy rapidly isn’t getting the purchase it should get. And I don’t know what to do about that.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Clive Thompson, thank you very much.

S2: Glad to be here.

S1: Clive Thompson is a journalist and author of Coders The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, and that is it for the show today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brookes or edited by Tori Bosch and Alison Benedict. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer for Slate Podcasts, and TBD is part of the larger What Next family? And we’re also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. I want to recommend you listen to Thursday’s episode of What’s Next? To understand what exactly Mark Meadows knew about what was going on on January 6th. What next? We’ll be back next week and we’ll be out for the next couple of weeks, but playing some of our favorite episodes of the year. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.