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CDReality: Is CDR untested and theoretical?

CO2 removal has been around for some time. Submarines and the Space Station require CO2 removal to keep the air breathable. What’s new is the scale and speed with which we need to deploy those solutions.

The bottom line

CDR is not one technology but many different approaches used to remove CO2 from the air (not from smokestacks–that’s CCS!). So the answer varies from approach to approach.

New approaches to CO2 removal

It is true that most methods of CDR, short of reforestation/afforestation and traditional soil amendment methods, are fairly new and relatively early in development. Very few people were thinking about CDR ten or even five years ago.

Is that a bad thing?

We all wish we were further along in developing cheap and readily available CDR solutions that could be broadly implemented. We are not, which is exactly the reason we need to invest now to make sure we get there around mid-century.

Demonstrated vs commercial

First, we need to differentiate between “untested/theoretical” and “ready for commercial use”.

A lot of CDR technologies have been tested and work well. Take DAC: versions of DAC have been used to keep the air in submarines and the space station breathable. Tested, proven.

Enhanced rock weathering is another great example: rock weathering by binding CO2 is a natural process that happens fairly slowly but has been going on for pretty much always. By grinding up the rock, this reaction can be accelerated. The underlying chemistry of these reactions is well understood.

What these technologies aren’t – yet – is commercial. There are a handful of DAC plants that exist to prove the concept more than to remove large quantities of CO2. To make sure they get from where they are to being viable gigaton-scale solutions is what we at OpenAir are focusing on.

“The only way to really know how these systems perform in practice, is to go build them,”
David Victor, a professor of public policy at the University of California, San Diego


CO2 Sequestration is not new

The world’s oldest CO2 sequestration effort started in Norway in 1996 and has sequestered just under a million tons of CO2 each year. The facility was built by the Norwegian company Sleipner to avoid a CO2 tax. The CO2 is captured and stored in a deep saline reservoir 800-1000 meters (2600-3300ft) below the sea floor.

This (unfortunately no longer updated) website contains interesting data about the Sleipner CO2 sequestration effort, e.g.

“There is no evidence of CO2 leakage and the CO2 remains in situ. CO2 capture is done using amine technology. Injection currently costs $17 US/Ton CO2.”

Importantly, this shows that 20 years in (the data is from 2016), CO2 can be safely sequestered at a manageable cost using the same (or a similar) technology for capture (amine-based) as modern DAC plants do.

We do new stuff all the time

The argument that something can’t or shouldn’t be done because it is untested seems disingenuous at best. Inventing and commercializing new things is what we do as humans and have been doing since very early in our development. Use of fire, agriculture, aqueducts, roads, telescopes, trains, cars, radios, fossil fuel plants, computers, 3D printing, reusable rockets, cancer treatments – all were at some point or still are new. That did not keep us from continuing to develop and deploy them.

Things didn’t always go smoothly and as planned. Edison thought he could crank out a light bulb in three or four months. It took him 14 months and $850,000 in today’s money to make one that burned a bit more than half a day.

Had he given up after three months would we still be using gaslight and candles? Probably not, but it might have taken many more years to get a functioning light bulb.

So, yes, a lot of CDR methods are currently not optimized and nowhere near the scale we will need them. That’s not a reason to stop working on them, that’s a reason to accelerate our work, do innovate, develop new and better methods and quickly scale them up, learn from experience and come up with new improvements.

That’s how we got from “mobile brick” to the latest generation of smart phones. We can do it again. We have to.

is CDR untested