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Air capture could result in lower global carbon price

PE

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A prototype air capture machine was demonstrated at the IMechE

Politicians, industrialists, financiers and the public should have a better understanding of air capture of CO2 emissions following a week of events last month organised by the IMechE.

A prototype air capture machine was demonstrated at One Birdcage Walk as MPs, peers and the general public got the chance to find out more about this controversial geo-engineering technology, which is being strongly advocated by the institution. 

Dr Tim Fox, head of energy and climate change, said the aim of Air Capture Week had been to build momentum behind air capture and encourage greater political discussion of its possibilities. 

He told PE: “There is a need to focus on geo-engineering solutions we can be sure of now that are relatively benign and that can leverage existing technology development such as carbon capture and storage.”

Air capture machines such as those proposed by US physicist Klaus Lackner, who developed the device demonstrated at the IMechE, would suck CO2 out of the atmosphere so it could be stored or reused in industrial processes. 

Many air capture machines could potentially be deployed in remote locations where there would be an abundance of renewable energy and infrastructure for carbon capture and storage to create “negative emissions”. Such machines could be used to offset the greenhouse gas emissions of sectors that are hard to mitigate otherwise, such as aviation. 

In other scenarios, the air capture machines might be sited adjacent to factories and in industrial parks to capture CO2 and release it for use in manufacturing processes, such as making synthetic fuels. Such “closed-loop” systems would stabilise emissions rather than decrease them but they could buy time as more environmentally friendly technological alternatives are developed. 

Air capture and synthetic fuels could be used to power transport, sucking up the emissions from vehicles and using the CO2 to produce fuel in a closed process. In the meantime, electric vehicles could be developed en masse, Fox said. 

He said it was time to take devices such as Lackner’s forward. “Air capture has reached the phase of development where we’re confident that we have designs we could move forward with,” he said. “We should be moving into the pilot plant and test plant demonstration stage.”

One of the benefits of introducing air capture would be that it set a price for carbon that could be applied globally, Fox added. “What air capture enables you to do is to fix immediately what the carbon price is. Because if you introduce that machine and take the CO2 out of the atmosphere, you do it for a certain price. Let’s say, for example, that that’s $200 a tonne – which is roughly the sort of figure that Klaus Lackner would give for that technology today. 

“Once that’s in place, we know what the price of that pollution is. That enables a breakthrough in terms of thinking about how we deal with pollution worldwide because once we know the cost of it there’s no excuse.”

The long-term effect of setting the carbon price would be to encourage investment in technology for reducing emissions at lower and lower costs, Fox said. “The developers of the technology will compete to capture carbon from the air at a cheaper price,” he said. 

“That will drive the price down; the carbon price will come down over time and everybody else who’s developing low-carbon solutions will look to do it at a better price than the lowest carbon capture price to be in business. So what it will do is drive the cost of low-carbon solutions down globally.”

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