How Giant Fans are turning harmful CO2 into Useful Fuel

Katt GuInnovation, Planet Comments

Carbon dioxide is destroying the planet. Okay, I know that you think I am talking crazy. Carbon dioxide is naturally present in the ecosystem as part of the Earth’s carbon cycle, which can be simplified into two steps:

  1. humans and animals breathe in oxygen from the air and breathe out carbon dioxide as a product of cellular respiration.
  2. plants take in carbon dioxide and converted it into carbohydrate through photosynthesis, releasing oxygen as a waste product.
CO2 Pollution, social impact


The cycles goes on and on, so humans and other livings things get to survive.

Well, you are right! However, I am not talking about the naturally-present carbon dioxide. What I am concerned about is the carbon dioxide added to the natural cycle by human activities, mainly from combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and oil.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global atmospheric concentration of CO2 has increased about 30 percent from a pre-industrial value of about 280 ppm, reaching over 400 ppm in 2015. Since 1750, it is estimated that CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes are the single largest source of increased atmospheric CO2, contributing to about two thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture, deforestation and other land use changes have been the second-largest contributors, accounting for about one thirds of the emissions.

And then comes the problem: carbon dioxide can change the radioactive forcing of the atmosphere, allowing it to absorb infrared thermal radiation from the underlying surface and prevent the radiation from escaping into outer space. To put it simply, carbon dioxide is the main culprit of global warming.

I should admit that I have made a mistake. Carbon dioxide is not destroying the Earth. The planet might be altered a little bit by greenhouse gas but, in fact, the Earth had higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere 20 million years ago (I mean as high as 7,000 ppm during the Cambrian period). The planet has managed to survive for such a long period of time but us, humans, won’t be that lucky.

CO2, social impact


I am not intending to make you worried. Well, you should be, but now is the good news: Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company sponsored by Bill Gates, is working on a project to build a massive wall of fans that can suck carbon dioxide directly out of the air and turn it into fuels. More excitingly, the group of engineers have already built a prototype machine in Squamish, Canada, that can absorb the emissions from about 14 or 15 vehicles. At full-scale capacity, the mega-machine is expected capture emissions from 300,000 cars every year.

The technology is doing what trees naturally do – capture CO2 and release oxygen, but it is much more efficient. To capture carbon dioxide that already exists in the atmosphere, we may need much more farmable land to plant enough trees. The air-sucking machine does not have the restriction – it could be built anywhere in the world, including desert or wasteland. Just as Carbon Engineering’s business development manager Geoff Holmes says, “a direct air capture plant can be built wherever land is cheap and there is a demand for the CO2 produced.”

Here is how the technology really works: First, the fans in the air contactor pulls in air molecules (only 1 in every 2,500 of which is CO2), which pass through the air contactor and come into contact with a liquid hydroxide solution. When reacting with the carbon-absorbing liquid, the carbon molecules are converted into solid carbonate pellets, a type of salt. Finally, the carbon pellets are processed under high temperatures inside a locked vessel to get back pure carbon dioxide, which can either be discarded or combined with hydrogen to produce fuels.

From the point of restoring carbon balance, the fuels are completely carbon-neutral because they are made from carbon dioxide sourced from atmosphere. Most importantly, the fuels produced by the technology have the same chemical composition as fossil fuels, so no adjustment or change will be needed to use the fuel in existing power plants or vehicles.

The company is ready to run its pilot project, which is expected to produce 40 million liters of fuel per year per unit. After the pilot finishes, a large industrial scale plant will be built in 2017 or 2018.

Are you impressed by the idea? Check out the video from Carbon Engineering to learn more about the technology and their plans for the next step!

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Katt Gu

M.S of Natural Resource and Environmental Science/J.D Candidate at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.