Here is a technical assessment of six companies leading the carbon capture space. These six companies are those whose core activity is carbon capture and storage (CCS). This includes Net Power and Quest that work exclusively in conjunction with fossil fuels, as well as the more flexible approaches of Carbon Engineering, Global Thermostat, Climeworks, and Carbfix.
Assessment of Net Power and Quest
Here are two examples of working CCS plants that are used in conjunction with fossil fuel-powered power plants. Both plants have been in operation for years and have amassed ample data to warrant scrutiny. These two companies are Net Power and Quest (for an explanation of how these plants operate see the methodology section of this paper).
Net Power (Allam cycle)
The Net Power pilot plant in the Texas city of La Porte is a proof of concept that uses the Allam cycle to generate power while capturing all of its CO2 emissions which can be sequestered in geologic formations or used to make things like plastic or fuel. The Allam cycle can generate electricity on a large scale. The La Porte plant produces 25 megawatts of power which is enough electricity to power 5,000 homes. A full-size plant is expected to be operational in 2022 and it will be able to generate 60,000 megawatts (Ryan, 2019). Net Power is building multiple power plants which Forbes described as a “game-changer” (Conca, 2019). Researchers have agreed with this assessment citing the concept’s movement toward commercializing its emissions-free technology (Rathi, 2018).
Compared to other CCS plants Net Power technologies are highly efficient. For each unit of energy trapped in natural gas, the La Porte plant produces 0.8 units of electricity which compares favorable to the 0.6 units produced in the most advanced natural-gas power plants (Rathi, 2018).
Unlike the Petra Nova and Boundary Dam plants, the La Porte plant does not reduce the amount of energy it produces when capturing carbon. The Petra Nova plant in Texas is a fossil-fueled power plant currently generating electricity and capturing over 1 million tons CO2 /year (Folger, 2018). The Boundary Dam plant in Canada is the only other large-scale fossil-fueled power plant with CCS. Both facilities have retrofitted post-combustion capture technology units, and both offset a portion of the cost of CCS by selling captured CO2 for EOR (Folger, 2018). NET Power compares favorable to these plants because it can generate clean, lower-cost power from fossil fuels without emissions (Rathi, 2018).
Data from the plant in La Porte suggests that it can be operated on a par with conventional power plants. However, Net Power is working on making them substantially cheaper than plants that generate emissions. Their goal is to make it so inexpensive that it will be affordable for developing nations (Ryan, 2019). Net Power’s technology is widely scalable because it has substantially slashed water requirements which means it can be used in places where water is scarce. This offers a significant competitive advantage. According to the U.S. Geological Society, power production accounts for more than 40% of the water withdrawals from fresh water and surface water sources (U.S. Geological Society, n.d.).
Unlike other processes, Net Power’s carbon capture is part of the core power generation, rather than an add-on (Allam, 2013). The Net Power plant requires less room and less energy while offering more environmental benefits. A comparative assessment reveals that Net Power’s design has overcome basic shortcomings in conventional stand-alone, or “parasitic” carbon capture facilities. (Ryan, 2019). Although this technology can generate emissions free energy it will not draw down emissions.
The Quest facility has been in operation since 2015 as of May of 2019 they had sequestered 4 million tons of CO2 underground. This is equivalent to the annual emissions of about one million cars. Quest has stored more CO2 than any other similar project in the world and at a faster annual rate. The company says they achieved this milestone ahead of schedule and at a lower cost than expected (Canadian Press, 2019). Quest is on track to capture and store over one million tons of CO2 every year.
Although all indications are that the technology works the costs have been high. However, they have been declining and Shell Canada president Michael Crothers, estimates that building and operating a similar project would now cost 20 to 30 per cent less because of lessons learned at Quest (Canadian Press, 2019). Although CCS is not a negative emissions technology or even carbon neutral, the Quest plant is a working example of a technology that will decrease emissions compared to fossil fuel technologies without carbon capture.
Assessment of Carbon Engineering, Global Thermostat, Climeworks and Carbfix
Here is a review of four of the most well-established working examples of CDR technologies. A side-by-side cost assessment reveals that each of these startup’s projected costs appears to be inversely proportional to the money each says it has raised. As of 2017, this amounted to around $15 million in private investment for Climeworks and Carbon Engineering, and $50 million for Global Thermostat (Rathi, 2017).
Carbon Engineering (CE)
Carbon Engineering has been working on its direct air capture (DAC) technology for more than a decade and a pilot plant has been operational since 2015. They are the first DAC company to offer their work for peer review. As of 2018, there was three years’ worth of data demonstrating CE’s efficiency and viability. This data including costs justify building out commercial-scale plants that can capture CO2 for between $94 and $232 per ton (Keith, Holmes, St. Angelo & Heidel, 2018). CE expects to be among the first DAC companies to make a profit.
CE’s captured CO2 can be sequestered or converted into something useful. A large plant that is under construction in California that will capture and sequester 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year. A full-scale CE facility is expected to be able to capture up to one million tons of CO2 per year, which is equivalent to the emissions of 250,000 average cars or the carbon sequestration of 40 million trees. The land requirements for each plant are roughly one square kilometer (Andrews, 2018).
Compared to other DAC technologies CE offers an affordable approach to CDR. Although the captured CO2 can be sequestered it can also be used to make low carbon fuel using a renewable energy–powered electrolyzer. The company says it can produce synthetic fuels for about $1 per liter which could help to further drive down the price of this DACs technology. To help refine this option and defray costs the company has partnered with Occidental Petroleum (Kramer, 2020).
Assuming all the carbon captured by CE’s technology is permanently stored, we would need roughly 36,200 plants to sequester all the carbon emitted each year (Andrews, 2018). However, the actual number of plants required could be much lower when partnered with serious GHG mitigation efforts.
CE’s machines are scalable due to the fact that their machines use known technologies and off the shelf equipment. This is unlike its competitors which require custom built parts. However, CE’s DAC technology will need to overcome massive energy requirements. This is due to the 1000°C heat needed to turn solid carbon back into CO2 gas.
Global Thermostat (GT)
Global Thermostat has a pilot and commercial demonstration plant operating in SRI International in Menlo Park, California since 2010. GT has been awarded 16 patents in the US and Japan, and more are pending in 147 nations (Kintisch, 2014). GT’s technology can flexibly and efficiently adsorb CO2 directly from the atmosphere, smokestacks, or a combination of both to deliver carbon negative electricity because the plant captures substantially more carbon than it emits. This system delivers 98% pure CO2 in a compressed form that can then be stored underground or reused. GT’s approach is reliable, and effective and it has been deemed feasible, according to the DOE lab chemists (Kintisch, 2014).
GT keeps costs low by striping carbon using a low energy approach. GT says its process can extract CO2 for $100/ton (Kramer, 2020). GT reduces costs by selling captured CO2 to a soda company. The deal signed in 2018 with a soft drink manufacturer is bringing the cost down from $150 per ton.
According to GT’s CEO Graciela Chichilnisky, costs will decline dramatically when it’s scaled up (Ross, 2018). GT’s co-founder Peter Eisenberger predicts costs will drop as low as $50 per metric ton (Rathi, 2017). Global Thermostat’s chief technology officer says that his firm has “irrevocably shown that a price of $50 per ton is achievable” and he added that he thinks his company can go even lower (Siegel, 2018). GT hopes to build small on-site capture plants at soda makers’ facilities, thus reducing costs for energy and transportation (Cho, 2018).
GT’s plant in Huntsville, Alabama is expected to remove 4,000 tons of CO2 annually (equivalent to taking 700 cars off the road). However, far bigger plants will be able to remove more than a million tons of CO2 per year which is equivalent to the emissions of 250,000 average cars or the carbon sequestration of 40 million trees. At these levels, pulling 1% of global emissions would require 400 plants (Siegel, 2018).
GT’s process is mild, safe, and carbon negative, only steam and electricity are consumed, without any emissions or other effluents. It also has a low technology risk because it employs materials and processes that have been used for decades (Kintisch, 2014). GT’s environmental footprint is smaller than some of its competitors because their technology operates with standard temperature and pressure. Captured CO2 is stripped off with low temperature steam (85-100° C), and this heat can even be sourced from residual waste heat at little or no-cost. The low energy low heat requirements set it apart from its competitors. GT’s heat requirements are less than one tenth of CE’s technology which requires 1,000 ° C. GT can even use the harmful heat byproduct of PV solar farms to power its plants, turning the farms into giant carbon sinks, while increasing their profitability through CO2 sales.
Two additional innovations separate GT from the rest, the first is far less demand for fan power and energy because it uses an air exchanger that is 65 times thinner than a company like CE. The second is the fact that GT can retrofit smokestacks as part of a less expensive approach to CCS compared to other technologies which require building out more infrastructure. GT’s technology can be retrofitted into existing facilities in as little as one day of downtime. Other technologies require redesigning a plant’s entire process. Unlike other carbon capture methods, GT’s air capture technology can be retrofitted into almost any existing facility including metal smelting, cement production, and petrochemical refining (Kintisch, 2014).
Finally, GT requires no government subsidies or carbon credits to be economical and profitable. GT’s low-cost approach to CDR is flexible, scalable and modular. It can reliably remove unlimited amounts of CO2. However, despite its proven practicality, the technology has yet to be demonstrated at scale.
Climeworks is a DAC pioneer and the company behind the world’s first commercially available CDR technology. As of 2018 CW had plants in 14 locations across Europe. Their pilot plant in Iceland removes 50 metric tons of CO2 per year and their largest plant removes 900 tons of CO2 per year (Cho, 2018).
Investors have taken notice and as of 2018 CW’s technology investments total about $50 million (Doyle, 2018). CW stores the CO2 it captures underground makes carbon neutral products like plastics and sells it to greenhouses and soft drink manufacturers (Cho, 2018). By marketing the CO2 they capture CW has cut costs by 80%. At $100 per metric ton (Oland, 2020) CW is price competitive with Carbon Engineering, however, the company hopes to drive costs down even further.
Once the filter is saturated with CO2 it is heated to around 100 °C (212 °F) which can be derived from waste heat (Cho, 2018). CW’s project at the Hellisheidi plant gets its heat from the geothermal power plant. The use of low-cost leftover heat reduces the massive energy requirements of CW’s machines (Marshall, 2017).
As of 2019 CW collects about 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, but the company hopes to capture 1% of the world’s emissions by 2025. “Ultimately what we are trying to do is halt climate change, or even reverse climate change, to be able to scale up to the size that could really make an impact,” said Louise Charles, the communications manager at CW (Kotecki, 2019). To capture 1% of global CO2 emissions would require 750,000 units like the one installed in Hinwil (McGrath, 2017). Around 30 million CW units could be required in operational stock by the end of the century (Realmonte et al, 2019). CW envisions its technology operating in tandem with NCS approaches like afforestation and reforestation. However, CW technology has a much higher CDR capacity than trees. CW machines are location-independent, so they can be put almost anywhere there is an energy source (Cho, 2018)
The company wants to remove and supply carbon directly onsite. They have penetrated the food, beverage, agriculture, renewables, and CDR markets and they are optimistic about finding more markets. CW sells their captured CO2 to a greenhouse in Hinwal, Switzerland and a Coca Cola-owned sparkling water brand (Kotecki, 2019). However, in both commercial applications the CO2 they capture, and sell is released back into the atmosphere.
Carbfix uses a natural weathering process of mineral carbonization to permanently sequester CO2 as rock in the subsurface (see mineralization above). CF has been capturing and sequestering carbon in Iceland since 2012. In 2017 CF began collaborating with CW on a project in Hellisheidi, Iceland at one of the world’s largest geothermal plants. CW installed a DAC plant and CF stored the captured carbon.
Over the years CF has amassed data supporting its proof of concept from sophisticated monitoring and analysis which has demonstrated its process is safe, secure, cost-effective and environmentally benign. At its pilot site, located 3 km southwest of Hellisheidi power plant in Iceland CF has demonstrated that over 95% of CO2 captured and injected into basalt formations was turned into rock in the subsurface in less than two years (Matter, 2016). This contrasts the previous common view that mineral storage in CCS projects takes hundreds to thousands of years. As of the end of 2018, 66,000 tons of sour gases had been captured and injected at Hellisheidi, two thirds of which were CO2 and one third H₂S.
The CF method has been described as a quick but expensive way to sequester carbon dioxide in rock (Young and Medzon, 2019). However, the cost of CF’s sequestration is considerably less than $30 per metric ton of CO2 (Rathi, 2017). In addition to capturing C02, CF is also able to capture sulphur. Co-capturing the two gases in the same process facilitates cost-savings in the capture phase which typically dominates the overall cost of CCS. The cost of industrial scale CF operations at Hellisheidi are $24.8/ton (Gunnarsson et al., 2018). That is significantly cheaper than other known methods for carbon or sulfur capture and sequestration.
Although the nominal capacity of the CW DAC-1 plant is only 50 tonnes of CO2/year, the process is scalable and its method to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels can be applied world-wide. CF can flexibly sequester carbon from either CCS or DAC CDR technology. A CF method is also being developed to be used offshore for permanent mineral storage of carbon in the sub-seafloor.
“It will be scaled up,” CF project manager Kári Helgason said. “We know it’s going to be scaled up. The question is whether it will be scaled up enough. And how fast.” The key is big fields of basalt all over the world. It’s actually the most common kind of rock on Earth. In locations without basalt, there is often an infrastructure in place that could help. Oil wells are an alternative to injecting CO2 into basalt (Young and Medzon, 2019). CF has received support from the EU through the FP7 and H2020 research programs, allowing for continuous and active collaboration between industry and academia. The current grant for CarbFix2 ensures the project’s funding until 2021.
CF plants emit small amounts of CO2 including those that use geothermal renewable energy. The greatest environmental liability is the fact that CF’s operation is water-intensive requiring 27 kg of fresh water for each kg of CO2.
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