Way Down in the Hole, Part 9 - An Honest Look at Direct Air Capture's Promise and Pitfalls

At the most basic level, carbon-capture technology is not new, but it has attracted a lot more attention in recent years amid discussions about how best to transition to a net-zero world by 2050. Efforts to ramp up carbon capture have faced a number of hurdles, however, including the difficulty in capturing some emissions at the point where they’re generated. That’s where direct air capture (DAC) — which essentially works as a large-scale air filter and can be located just about anywhere — comes into play. In today’s RBN blog, we take a closer look at the still-emerging technology and its limitations, a project in Iceland that is the largest currently in operation, and plans by Occidental Petroleum to make Texas home to the world’s largest DAC facility. 

We’ve already covered a lot of topics related to carbon capture in this blog series, starting with the basics of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Then we covered the federal 45Q tax credit and legislation that could expand its size and reach to encourage more CCS projects as well as some of the underlying economic and technological reasons why project successes have been limited so far. We followed that up by checking out some of the projects aiming to capture carbon including the Houston CCS Innovation Zone, the biggest project currently taking shape, along with three proposals to capture emissions from ethanol plants in the Midwest that were also the subject of a recent Drill Down Report.

More recently we examined why variable costs can make some projects uneconomic, which is an especially important factor in the development of DAC technology. Carbon-capture projects are the most economic when CO2 emissions are highly concentrated, making them easiest to capture. For that reason, ethanol production, ammonia production and natural gas processing — each with a CO2 source stream concentration of 99% or higher — are ideal candidates for carbon capture, which is why there are several projects planning to do just that. The central challenge for DAC technology is that it operates at the other extreme, as CO2 makes up only about 0.04% of regular air.

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