Calgary-based Carbon Engineering aims to be a breath of fresh air in a city traditionally known as a major hub for petrochemical engineering. The company is working on a scalable, industrial air capture system to help extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Current carbon capture and storage methods typically look to reduce the amount of carbon before it is released in the atmosphere by things like smoke stacks or exhaust systems. Direct air capture works differently in that it absorbs carbon dioxide that has already been emitted. It is thought to be one of the most feasible methods for trapping emissions from small, mobile sources like cars, trucks, and planes – sources which currently account for roughly 60% of emissions today, with that number set to grow exponentially in the future.

In a promotional video for the company, David Keith, President of Carbon Engineering, says, “We can and must transition to sustainable sources of low carbon energy. We’re doing that, but it will take time. We need more tools in the carbon climate toolbox. Here at Carbon Engineering, we are developing technologies to take carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere.” Nature provides its own carbon dioxide filter in the form of trees, but experts suggest the number of trees needed to effectively deal with carbon emissions would require considerable reallocation of valuable agricultural land. It is estimated that in order to absorb as much CO2 as an air capture facility, trees would require roughly 1000 times more land.

Conversely, air capture can be installed anywhere including locations such as deserts, where planting trees is not a viable option. As Mike Crabtree, former Chief Commercial Officer and Executive Board Member of Carbon Engineering, explains, “Carbon dioxide is everywhere. This means that air capture technology can be used anywhere on the planet. This gives the system incredible flexibility. Additionally, it means that air capture can be size-matched to the local economic and industrial needs for carbon dioxide.”

The video also displays the prototype contactor machine, which currently operates at the University of Calgary. According to Geoffrey Holmes, a research scientist with the company, the prototype traps over 80% of the CO2 in the air that passes through it every day, which is equivalent to 14-15 cars. It is predicted that once the system is scaled 20,000 times, which the company deems feasible with only slight modification of the current system, it would capture emissions equivalent to 300,000 cars. The following is a brief summary of how the technology works:

  • Air is drawn into the side of the machine where it enters the contactor, a structure composed of tightly packed, corrugated PVC sheets that are coated with a CO2-absorbent liquid.
  • As air flows over the corrugated sheets, the CO2 is converted to a type of salt or ‘carbonate.’ The sheets are arranged to maximize the amount of carbon dioxide-contaminated air that makes contact with the liquid.
  • Borrowing technology used in the paper industry, the carbonate undergoes a regeneration cycle to produce a purified stream of CO2 and also remakes the original capture liquid, which is reused in the contactor. The pure CO2 can be used in industrial applications and/or geologically stored deep underground. The company is close to integrating a membrane-based system that improves upon the current regeneration technology used to extract the CO2 from the carbonate, but will consume much less energy.

Speaking on behalf of the Pembina Institute, a not-for-profit environmental policy research and education organization, Jason Switzer, Director of Corporate Consulting says, “[Air capture is] an exciting new technology. It is also an exciting story for Calgary. As a Calgarian, as a Canadian, I am very encouraged to see an entrepreneurial approach to reducing carbon emissions. It says that Calgary can be an incubator for not just new technologies for recovering oil sands, but also be part of the solution, part of building a lower carbon energy future.”

The excitement surrounding air capture technology, and Carbon Engineering in particular, extends well beyond Calgary, Alberta – The Economist, NPR, New York Times and Fortune Magazine have all featured the company’s work and Bill Gates and his friend Jabe Blumenthal, a former Microsoft executive, are investors in the company. Investing in carbon capture is not only a smart business opportunity as evidenced by the savvy business people supporting it, but it is also a smart investment that could see substantial returns in the impact it has on reducing our carbon footprint for the future.

About The Author

John Keirstead
John Keirstead
Serial Entrepreneur, Technologist and Inventor.
My objective is to develop useful products that have a net positive effect in the lives of those that use them and the environment that we live in.
CEO of Mission LED Lighting Company Ltd.

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