Business Unusual

SA may help the world move beyond being CO2 neutral to becoming CO2 negative

For the world to avert a major global crisis, three things must happen: all nations need to recognise that global warming is real; all countries need to reduce their current emissions, and all nations need to work towards removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The global scientific community is in consensus about global warming and most countries understand and accept they must act. One country does not - the US. Besides a President that is not a fan of science, there is another reason they would prefer it not be true. The US is the second largest carbon emitter, but when combining emissions per capita and total emissions, it is the largest. For the US to comply with the next two objectives, Americans will need to make significant changes, so significant that it may affect their ability to maintain their current lifestyle. There are quite a few other countries that, while not major total emission contributors, do have a high per capita emission contribution. South Africa is one. While we have signed the Paris accord, and have enacted a law to charge for carbon emissions, most of the charges will accrue to Eskom who can hardly afford it.

For the second requirement, almost all nations are a long way from achieving it, and again South Africa is not only short of the needed energy, but most of our energy is fossil fuel based. So we are in trouble there too.

With so few including us not able to rapidly reduce our emissions, the odds of succeeding in the requirement to remove carbon dioxide look slim.

There is another complication. While the volume of carbon dioxide is too high, the actual concentration is just 0,04% of the total atmosphere. Most of it is Nitrogen (78%) and Oxygen (21%); carbon dioxide is only 0.04%

Removing something with such a low concentration requires you to process a lot of air to capture the CO2.

Here is the long shot

A few companies have started building industrial units that can capture CO2 from the air. They don’t capture anything near what is needed, but it is a start. Ideally, the CO2 should be safely stored. The catch with this is that, considering the scale of the project, who would pay for a venture that has no return?

At the moment the first unit by the company Climeworks is using the captured CO2 to aid plant growth in a greenhouse. It is useful but not likely to scale or generate enough of a return on its own.

The alternative relies on a technique devised almost a century ago by two men that are credited in its name - the Fisher-Tropsch Process. It is a way to take a carbon, hydrogen and oxygen mix which is heated and pressurised and passed over a catalyst to produce synthetic fuel. South Africans may not have heard of the process, but they would have heard of Sasol and PetroSA which both use the process to produce industrial volumes of fuel from coal and gas.

If the capture system produced fuel in sufficient volumes and at a low enough cost, it could shift the need to use fossil fuels and begin reducing the overall CO2 emissions. If they were also added to all current coal and gas power plants they could be more efficient as the CO2 concentrations in the power plant exhaust would be higher. The plant itself should also supply the energy and heat requirements for the initial process.

This would allow for cost recovery and reduction on fossil fuels while also still providing for fuel to be used in applications where electronic options are still not efficient, such as jet travel.

Climeworks is one of the companies looking to harvest CO2 from the atmosphere and is able to do so with a single step process. The largest unit designed is expected to remove a million tons a year.

In theory, this is possible, but it currently does not as the input costs for CO2 capture, and then the energy needed to do the conversion, would make the final fuel product too expensive. However, with more research, efficiency may be improved to make it worthwhile.

Assuming the process can be improved, we would continue to expand the capture operations until the offset costs from the fuel production allow the excess to be removed from the system.

37 billion tons a year added, the current projects estimate that plants capable of removing up to a million tons a year can be built. That is impressive but would mean we need 37 000 to match current emissions before we begin working on actually removing CO2. If captured CO2 is used for fuels then it becomes plausible that total emissions do not just become carbon neutral, but actually begin to reduce the total carbon. Still, the amount of carbon that needs to be removed is somewhere between 100 and 1000 billion tons.

I am not confident that this technology is sufficiently developed to achieve this goal, or even actually able to meet the goal. However, a little over a century ago powered flight was considered impossible. But with enough interest and just a few people crazy enough to attempt to push the known boundaries we may either find a way to improve it or in doing so find a new way to solve it.

Here is hoping the scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs manage to beat the odds and find a way to remove 0.01% of the earth's atmospheric carbon dioxide in the next 30 years.

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