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What is carbon capture? How it works, climate change impact explained. - USA TODAY

What is carbon capture? How it works, climate change impact explained. – USA TODAY

DENVER – Get ready to hear a lot about climate-change-fighting “carbon capture” in the coming months as private businesses and nonprofits race to qualify for tens of billions of dollars in new federal tax credits and funding.

The modern world’s release of carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels is causing the planet’s climate to warm. Carbon dioxide acts like a blanket in the atmosphere, keeping the heat in. Before the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere were about 280 parts per million. Today, they’ve reached about 420 ppm.

New technology offers the possibility of not just reducing carbon emissions but rolling them back by vacuuming CO2 out of the air. The federal government is investing heavily in this technology, including funding four new national centers to develop it.

“It’s nothing less than saving our planet and our way of life,” said Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.

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How does carbon capture work?

Carbon dioxide can be removed two ways:

  • It can be stripped out of emissions from power plants when they burn fossil fuels like coal or natural gas
  • Large volumes of ambient air can be captured and treated.

Though capturing carbon isn’t that hard on a technical level, it has long been too expensive to do on a large scale.

What’s new:

  • Outside Denver, the world’s second-largest “direct air capture” or DAC plant has begun operating. The first was in Switzerland in 2017.
  • It blows air over special ceramic filters that capture CO2, which is then stripped off and concentrated into liquid or gas.
  • Its developers say the new technique can rapidly scale up to industrial size and could have a bigger impact than capturing power plant emissions.

The new “Global Thermostat” plant near Denver can capture about 1,000 tons of CO2 a year, or the equivalent emissions of 217 passenger cars. The plant is a pilot project demonstrating that the technology can work on a large scale, but experts say far more and bigger plants are necessary to make a real difference.

WHAT IS CARBON DIOXIDE? A look at how it contributes to global warming.

CLIMATE CHANGE: How its effects disrupt our daily life, fuel disasters.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi helps Colorado Gov. Jared Polis cut a ceremonial ribbon opening the Global Thermostat "direct air capture" plant outside Denver on April 4, 2023. The plant pulls carbon dioxide from the air, helping fight climate change.

Why is carbon capture in the news?

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 provides billions of dollars to companies that perform carbon capture, sometimes called carbon sequestration. Specifically, the federal government will pay them $180 a ton to capture carbon from the air using DAC approaches. 

If power plant operators can install DAC systems that cost less than $180 a ton to operate, they can turn a profit while helping the U.S. meet its emissions goals. 

Environmentalists increasingly believe reducing the amount of carbon released into the Earth’s atmosphere is no longer enough to prevent the worst climate change consequences and that the overall level of CO2 in our atmosphere must be reduced. Humans released an estimated 40 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere last year, according to the International Energy Agency.

Ed Legere, Global Thermostat’s director of facilities, holds up a block of extruded ceramic that helps the company's newly unveiled "direct air capture" plant near Denver pull carbon dioxide from the air to fight climate change.

Carbon capture offers the possibility of allowing society to continue transitioning from fossil fuels without abruptly shutting down the oil and gas industry, which is today an important economic driver that provides hundreds of thousands of jobs, especially in rural states like Wyoming, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Alaska.

What are some criticisms of carbon capture?

  • It could become an excuse. Because carbon capture essentially erases emissions, environmentalists worry the technology will give polluters an excuse to delay making the transition from carbon-based fuels.
  • It takes energy. Carbon capture requires energy to power it, which today means some of the electricity invariably comes from burning fossil fuels. Supporters of direct air capture systems, including Polis, the Colorado governor, say the increasing shift toward renewable power sources helps eliminate that concern.
  • Sometimes it helps produce fossil fuels. Some petroleum producers inject the captured carbon dioxide beneath the ground to pressurize older oil or natural gas fields to allow the companies to extract more petroleum, which will invariably be burned and release more CO2 into the atmosphere.

What happens to the carbon dioxide?

CO2 has value on its own as an industrial gas, to carbonize soda or to help greenhouse crops grow faster. But it also can be used to make cement or even jet fuel, when combined with hydrogen.

Today, most captured CO2 is injected into the ground, usually to either boost oil and gas production, or just stored in rock formations where it can’t affect the atmosphere. But that has required a new system of pipelines, because most CO2 today is captured from power plants but injection sites may not be nearby.

The DAC plants could be built anywhere there’s electricity because they capture and treat ambient air.


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