The longer we wait to take serious action on climate change, the more necessary it becomes to remove some of the CO2 we’ve already put in the air. In fact, the scenarios in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in which warming was limited to 2°C relied heavily on CO2 removal.
Adoption of the necessary technology still seems too far off, given the current lack of market incentives and supporting policies. The technique seen as most likely to scale up involves growing biofuel crops and burning them in power plants that capture the CO2 so it can be injected into underground storage. Like any scheme, this has drawbacks—it could compete with food crops for farmland, for example.
A new study led by the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Greg Rau highlights another tool for our CO2 removal toolbox: splitting seawater to produce hydrogen gas for fuel while capturing CO2 with ocean chemistry.
In electrolysis, a device powered by electricity is used to split H2O, producing hydrogen gas. Several chemical modifications to this process have been proposed that can grab CO2 from the atmosphere. Like the idea of using biofuels, this represents a “win-win” by producing an energy resource while capturing CO2, bringing the cost down.
For example, one method uses special membrane filters to separate the hydrogen and hydroxide ions produced during electrolysis. Adding the hydroxide to water allows it to take up CO2 from the air, turning it into bicarbonate. If the hydrogen ions weren’t separated, they’d push the chemical equilibrium away from bicarbonate and toward dissolved CO2. But when powdered carbonate rock is added, it can react with the dissolved (atmospheric) CO2 to produce a bunch of happy, stable bicarbonate. Combined, these reactions allow people to tune the hydrogen production and carbonate formation.
That may be more chemistry than you wanted to hear, but the gist is that atmospheric CO2 goes into the ocean as bicarbonate—which won’t acidify the water or harm ecosystems. So if you power the electrolysis process with renewable energy, you can turn solar/wind/hydroelectric energy into hydrogen fuel while also removing CO2 from the air.
The new study focuses on a basic estimate of the cost and maximum potential of this technique. First, the researchers worked out its efficiency of CO2 capture—about 0.3 tons captured per gigajoule of electricity input, including the losses from quarrying and crushing rock. That’s around 10 times greater than biofuel schemes, but it depends on the assumption that there is demand for all the hydrogen fuel you make. The hydrogen can be used by vehicles, and there’s the possibility of using hydrogen as a type of storage for the electric grid—using excess power to make hydrogen that can run a power plant when needed. So it’s not too farfetched that demand could rise to meet supply.
Relatively cheap and scalable
The researchers’ back-of-the-envelope estimate puts the cost of this system at between $3 and $161 per ton of captured CO2, depending on which type of renewable energy powers it. That’s equal to or cheaper than estimates for biofuels, which were thought to be the most practical method.
The researchers used existing estimates of the upper limits of potential renewable energy production to get a sense of how much CO2 this could possibly remove from the atmosphere. If all the world’s potential hydroelectric, wind, geothermal, and biomass generation was used for this process (not that this would ever happen), you could capture twice as much CO2 per year as we currently emit. For a slightly more meaningful comparison, this comes in at about eight times the maximum potential for capture using biofuels. Essentially, it’s a lot of CO2 if you go crazy.
Obviously, this scheme has its drawbacks. Quarrying rock has its own localized environmental impact, as could pumping all that extra bicarbonate into the ocean. But the researches argue the idea is worth studying much more closely. The more options for removing atmospheric CO2 we work up, the more likely it is that one catches on when serious incentives finally arrive.