Some recent attention has been given to a new technology start-up firm called Global Thermostat (GT), which similar to GRT (Global Research Technologies, which is now apparently Kilimanjaro Energy) aims to establish a profitable business from drawing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the ambient air. GT's system differs from GRT’s system in that it uses waste heat produced by interconnected power plants to power an amine reaction system over using independent power generation with a sorbent reaction system. Regardless of the technique, similar to when GRT first hit the news, most media publications have ‘conveniently’ foregone the debate regarding how this strategy should be perused and instead just anointed it another potential tool in the fight for reducing carbon emissions. Sadly such naïve and ballyhooed intentions do a disservice to the potential legitimacy of the ambient air capture strategy.
While the first question asked of carbon emission remediation processes should be total potential rational annual impact (TPRAI) on carbon emissions, in the current environment with all environmental remediation and mitigation strategies the first question boils down to economics. TPRAI should be considered as the principle issue because it is highly probable that, similar to power generation, a piecemeal approach to carbon emission remediation will not be successful because of the necessary resource division that arises from the myriad of strategies that would comprise a piecemeal solution. It stands to reason that two or three principle remediation strategies should be used to reduce the severity of global warming with the remainder being used only in case of emergency. Despite all of the publicity surrounding reforestation and biochar, ambient air capture appears to have the most potential in reducing the probability of occurrence and the severity of detrimental events derived from global warming over a near-term (10-30 years) timeframe. However, for this potential to be attained an effective and accurate analysis of ambient air capture must be developed, something that start-up companies like GT and GRT are not doing.
The sizable remediation potential advantage of ambient air capture, especially in the GRT system, is its reduced primary resource dependency. With both biochar and reforestation land use becomes a significant limiting factor reducing the overall remediation potential. For example most of the numbers that biochar proponents throw around require reverting a large amount of land already occupied for food consumption or other reasons to swichgrass remediation farms. Realistically this requirement will and should never come to pass, thus while biochar and reforestation can provide non-trivial remediation elements with genuine commitment, competitive land use reduces its absolute level of remediation potential. The sorbent/amine reactant for ambient air capture can be recycled, in the proper design, eliminating the chief limiting factor because the energy required for the recycling element and other elements can be acquired through use of renewable energy sources or waste heat as proposed by GT.
However, the economic realities proposed by these corporations are rather silly. Both groups propose that ambient air capture can be made economical by reducing the current price of carbon capture from the hundreds of dollars per ton ($200-$500 based on what estimate one uses) to less than $100 per ton ($30 per ton is a figure commonly cited by Klaus Lackner). Of course no details are given to how this dramatic drop in price will be achieved. Without details one simply assumes the rationality is that the price drop will come from mass production scale-up; however, to anticipate such a dramatic price drop with a lack of use of exotic or rare minerals or lack of first generation manufacturing technology which are both lacking in these designs, is difficult.
Another means to make ambient air capture economical is sale of the capture CO2. Some of the ideas floated around are use in soda and other carbonated products, aiding oil extraction, and use in the development of synthetic fuels, etc. Outside of aiding oil extraction the other ideas have little growth potential despite the incredibly optimistic beliefs of air capture proponents.
The best way to view ambient air capture is as a preventative measure designed to reduce future costs over actually being an economically self-sustaining entity. For example think of ambient air capture like a gym membership. Typically a person does not get paid money in the present term for going to the gym. The purpose of a gym membership (beyond issues of vanity) is it is a tool that is used to improve overall health, which reduces the probability that an individual spends money in the future on medical care due to poor health like high-blood pressure, high cholesterol, high tri-glycerides, etc. So while in the present owning a gym membership results in near-term debt (the cost of the gym membership) the inherent end design is future profit due to reduced future costs brought on by health related problems. Note that this future profit potential is not guaranteed, but is instead a probability-based arrangement.
The same goes for ambient air capture; the belief that ambient air capture will ever be near-term profitable is rather unrealistic and potentially dangerous. If too much importance is placed on near-term profitability then groups may not pursue the expansion and deployment of ambient air capture, which as discussed above, eliminates the remediation methodology with the most realistic carbon absorption potential. Returning to the gym membership example, owning a gym membership is almost analogous to a sunk cost if an individual only goes to the gym once or twice every month; no genuine health benefit can be derived from such little exercise.
Similarly if only a few ambient air capture units are constructed the effort is basically wasted. That reality is why the shift needs to be made away from near-term profitability because while one may find buyers for the first 50-100 million tons of CO2 collected every year, what about the other 1-2 billion tons of CO2? On a side note if humans are not going to fully tap the remediation potential of ambient air capture there is no point in further pursuing the technology. If humans cannot escape the near-term profit mindset and substitute a long-term profit cost reduction mindset then any serious mitigation and remediation strategy will struggle for acceptance, which will lead to much more difficult living conditions for the human species as the decades advance.
Another glaring problem with ambient air capture is a lack of specifics. This blog has already discussed the how the lack of specifics strip the legitimacy of GRT here. How does GT fair in specifics? The initial answer is not well. While there is an understanding of the need to protect proprietary information, the information provided by GT does not even reach a point where the need to shield proprietary information becomes a concern. For example here are the selling points that GT uses to demonstrate the worthiness of their idea (from their website):
Unique benefits of GT's Technology [Comment to the Point]
• Based on known and proven processes [This point is accurate;]
• Unique use of readily available surplus process heat [While true, describing the process as unique is a reach; a disingenuous use of technicalities to attempt to make the idea seem more creative than it actually is;]
• Makes carbon negative technology possible [True, but the word ‘possible’ implies that only this system can generate a carbon negative attribute, which is inaccurate and disingenuous;]
• Uses existing technology with most equipment off the shelf [Reiterating point 1 with different words;]
• Completely modular design allows greater flexibility and scale [Reiterating point 1 with another set of different words;]
• Economically viable process for capturing CO2 from ambient air [Really, where is the technical data validating this claim? Not on the website;]
• Offsets emissions from non-point sources such as transportation [Yes, but will transport of the amine base responsible for the absorption of the CO2 counteract this ‘advantage’?]
• Increases energy supplies while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions [A rather vague statement. Assumption is that energy supplies will increase due to unrestricted power plant construction due to lessening of CO2 emission accumulation fears;]
• Ultimate flexibility in location requiring only heat and air [Again too vague because there are a number of required elements beyond just heat and air in amine absorption;]
Not surprisingly the individuals at GT seem more interesting in hyping their process than actually demonstrating its legitimacy as the superior process among those representing its competition. Sadly no serious discussion, on GT's website or anywhere else for that matter, has been conducted regarding the two most important elements of ambient carbon capture: water use and sequestration of the captured carbon. Until these issues are at least addressed relative to the proposed methodology any individual or group advertising ambient air capture as a solution should be viewed with significant scepticism. As the old saying goes, ‘The ball is in your court GRT and GT'. Note still no technical details from GRT/Kilimanjaro Energy.