Pulling Carbon Dioxide Out of Thin Air

WHETHER streaming from the tailpipes of cars or the smokestacks of so many power plants and factories, carbon dioxide emissions keep growing around the globe.

Now a Canadian company has developed a cleansing technology that may one day capture and remove some of this heat-trapping gas directly from the sky. And it is even possible that the gas could then be sold for industrial use.

Carbon Engineering, formed in 2009 with $3.5 million from Bill Gates and others, created prototypes for parts of its cleanup system in 2011 and 2012 at its plant in Calgary, Alberta. The company, which recently closed a $3 million second round of financing, plans to build a complete pilot plant by the end of 2014 for capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, said David Keith, its president and a Harvard professor who has long been interested in climate issues.

The carbon-capturing tools that Carbon Engineering and other companies are designing have made great strides in the last two years, said Timothy A. Fox, head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London.

“The technology has moved from a position where people talked about the potential and possibilities to a point where people like David Keith are testing prototype components and producing quite detailed designs and engineering plans,” Dr. Fox said. “Carbon Engineering is the leading contender in this field at this moment for putting an industrial-scale machine together and getting it working.”

Should the cost of capturing carbon dioxide fall low enough, the gas would have many customers, he predicted. Chief among them, he said, would be the oil industry, which buys the gas to inject into oil fields to force out extra oil. The injection has minimal risk, said Howard J. Herzog, a senior research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The enhanced oil recovery industry has put tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the ground every year for decades with no problems,” he said.

Much of the carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery comes from naturally occurring underground reserves that are piped to oil fields, said Sasha Mackler, vice president of Summit Carbon Capture, a unit of Summit Power Group in Seattle. Summit Carbon Capture harvests carbon dioxide gas from coal and natural gas-burning plants before it can be spewed into the air.

Read more at www.nytimes.com