Is Solving Climate Change as Simple as Sucking Carbon Out of the Air?


It sounds almost too obvious. But we may be able to stave off some of the major effects of catastrophic climate change simply by sucking out of the air the vast amounts of carbon dioxide we’ve been spewing for decades. It’s not a new idea, but it’s one that has never been economical. Until now, perhaps.

Graciela Chichilnisky believes her company has developed a groundbreaking technology not just to capture CO2, but to tap a trillion-dollar market and sell it. Chichilnisky is the CEO and co-founder of Global Thermostat, which she describes as “a company that can be profitable and can simultaneously resolve the climate issue and the problem of global poverty.” Fast Company recently named it one of the top 10 most innovative energy companies in the world.

The company hopes to achieve its mission by leveraging new technology with market-based thinking. The idea is pretty straightforward: Remove CO2, one of the biggest contributors to climate change, from the air and then sell it to companies that use CO2 in their products or operations. Take a liability and make it an asset.

Technology to capture CO2 is not new. The most talked about application, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, often pairs with fossil-fuel power plants, including those using coal. But it has proved difficult to scale and some critics have questioned whether it is even effective in reducing climate change if it continues to prop up one of the most polluting industries in the world.

This is new: carbon capture and utilization

In the U.S., the coal industry has touted CCS as “clean coal” technology. But several high-profile projects in recent years have highlighted the technology’s huge pricetag, among other problems. A flagship CCS project under construction in Kemper County, Mississippi has been delayed numerous times and the bill has jumped from $2.4 billion to $6.2 billion, making it the most costly coal-burning power plant ever constructed in the country. And earlier this year, the federal government pulled the plug on FutureGen, which would have been a carbon capture coal power plant in Illinois. After over a decade of wrangling, the project never made economic sense.

If you’re an investor, putting your money behind CCS may be a risky bet, but Chichilnisky believes she can beat the odds because Global Thermostat is different from other carbon capture systems. One of the keys is that it’s not carbon capture and storage, but carbon capture and utilization. The design, Chichilnisky says, is simple. “That is why this is not really about technology,” she says. “It’s about the entire business strategy.”

Business strategy is something she knows well. With PhDs from MIT and Berkeley, Chichilnisky is a professor of economics and mathematical statistics at Columbia University, and is well known for being the architect of the carbon trading market underlying the UN’s Kyoto Protocol, which became international law in 2005. Global Thermostat co-founder, chief technology officer Peter Eisenberger, holds a PhD in physics from Harvard and served as the vice provost of the Earth Institute and director of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, where he is currently a professor. When it comes to the science and economics of climate change, Eisenberger and Chichilnisky are renowned experts.

Low temperatures, high profits

There are a few things that make their technology different from the rest of the market. The first is that it is designed to capture CO2 from ambient air instead of from concentrated sources, such as directly from a power plant chimney. According to Chichilnisky, their system “does so at remarkably low cost.”

One of the reasons for the low cost is the second difference: the Global Thermostat system operates at a much lower temperature than other carbon capture technology. It works in similar fashion to a dehumidifier, explains Chichilnisky. But what it removes from the air is CO2 instead of H2O and does so with the help of amines (organic compounds with a particular affinity for CO2) and steam heated to 85 degrees Celsius.

By using a relatively low-temperature steam, the system can be built anywhere there is an existing source of heat.

“We can take the heat from solar plants and run our system,” says Chichilnisky. “We can take the heat from a nuclear plant and run our system. We can put our system next to anything that has a source of low temperature heat; it doesn’t have to be a power plant.”

In order for the economics to make sense, it also needs to be located where the CO2 will be used, because transporting it can be costly. And there are a surprising number of uses for CO2. It’s used by healthcare companies, chemical companies, plastics companies, soft drink companies and companies growing plants or algae. But the biggest market for CO2, ironically, is actually its use for enhanced oil and gas recovery by injecting it underground.

Chichilnisky says they hope to tap the $1 trillion market for CO2. And right now is a particularly exciting time for Global Thermostat. After years of running two pilot projects, the technology is ready to go commercial. They have investment from NRG and partnerships with Corning and Linde. By next year, she says, they should have two plants operational and another two in 2017.

Now hold on there for a minute...

It appears the sky's the limit—if you don’t listen to the critics, that is. Some doubt that the technology can work as cheaply as advertised or that it can make any substantial dent in curbing climate change.

“Over time there has been a skepticism about the possibility of doing what we are doing. It’s never been done,” says Chichilnisky. “People say, If it hasn’t been done until now, what makes you say you can do it? That is a good point. But I have to say that I’ve spent my life doing that. We are doing what nobody else ever did in the field of energy.”

Another concern with techno-fixes like Global Thermostat’s technology is that it will breed complacency. If we can suck all the CO2 out of the atmosphere, we can just continue along with business as usual, right?

Wrong. Chichilnisky sees her company as helping to clean up the mess we’ve put into the atmosphere while we work to phase out fossil fuels and ramp up solar power.

“The sun is the only source of energy that can replace fossil fuels,” she says. But building new solar facilities will take time. “That is why we need carbon-negative solutions right now, “ she says. “The survival of our own life on the planet is at stake.”

Global poverty in the crosshairs, but no silver bullet

How Global Thermostat aims to tackle climate change is obvious, but what about the company’s dual mission of taking on global poverty? Chichilnisky says what has stalled progress on nations combatting climate change is that 90 percent of the world’s power plants use fossil fuels. And reducing emissions means reducing economic growth.

“Neither the rich nations nor the poor nations want to reduce economic growth, particularly the poor nations that need to combat poverty,” she says. “Therefore it has been an intractable situation until now.” Power plants that have a Global Thermostat attachment, she says, mean governments don’t have to choose between creating electricity or fighting pollution.

However, if we continue to rely on fossil-fueled based power plants, we still have other environmental impacts that come from the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels, and other health impacts—besides those caused by CO2 emissions—from the burning of fossil fuels. And if economic growth continues to be our only objective (and tool for fighting poverty), we’ll run into other problems as we face increasing resource scarcity and environmental degradation besides climate change.

Chichilnisky admits we have a lot of work to do. She claims technology like Global Thermostat’s is not meant to discourage other measures. It’s also not a silver bullet solution. If it proves effective, it’s one tool at our disposal in a multifaceted effort to transition to a low-carbon energy system and economy.

“We all have to work together,” says Chichilnisky. “It doesn’t suffice to do something about CO2. You have to do something about biodiversity or we will all be gone from this planet very soon.”

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