The Climate Solution Virgin Is Searching For: Sucking CO2 Out of the Air

Carbon dioxide levels now consistently average 400 parts per million (ppm), a rise from 280 ppm before the industrial revolution, producing an average global temperature rise temperature rise of 1.6°F since the beginning of the 20th century. So it’s no longer enough to think we’ll someday, somehow reduce greenhouse gas emissions. China, the world’s biggest emitter, won’t cap its greenhouse gas output until 2030. Things are looking pretty grim. 

One interesting effort that could help is backed by billionaire Richard Branson. His Virgin Earth Challenge is offering a $25 million prize to the best solution for drawing CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering it. To be effective, the process has to be sustainable and scalable. The award was announced in 2007, and nobody has snagged it yet, although there are 11 finalists. One North American company, Carbon Engineering, has just broken ground on a new pilot plant that will demonstrate its process from end to end.

Carbon Engineering’s patented technology consists of two continuous processes: An air contactor drives CO2 toward a capture solution followed by a regeneration step that releases the CO2 for use elsewhere while restoring the solution. The contactor is an array of large fans that mixes air with a solution of potassium hydroxide [KOH] that absorbs CO2, turning it into potassium carbonate [K2CO3]. It does so efficiently by maximizing air turbulence and surface area. Then through a two-step process, the CO2 is first removed as a solid, then restored as gas so that the entire cycle begins anew. After the CO2 is extracted, it can be sold for industrial uses, from washing brown paper products to lowering pH in alkaline water at treatment plants. If it is ultimately done on a large enough scale, CO2 could be stored permanently in deep underground geological formations.

Carbon Engineering is a privately held Alberta-based company owned by investors including billionaires Bill Gates and Canadian oil sands financier Murray Edwards. “The successful demonstration of a megaton-scale commercial facility will be the catalyst that ignites a large-scale air capture industry,” said David Keith, Carbon Engineering’s president. “This industry can then generate R&D required to drive down costs, allowing air capture to play a major role in solving the climate problem.”

Virgin Unite is the philanthropic foundation of entrepreneur and adventurer Richard Branson, whose empire began with Virgin Records, expanding to include Virgin Atlantic Airlines and Virgin Galactic space tourism. In 2006, Branson pledged all profits from Virgin Transportation over the following decade to developing green energy, a figure that could reach as high as $3 billion. In 2007, he launched the Virgin Green Fund to support renewable energy investments. Virgin Unite encourages those with a “novel approach” to combating greenhouse gases or enhancing green transportation, to contact the organization.