Carbon removal features filters, fans — and ivory towers

May 5, 2023
Media Highlights
Many of the teams seeking federal money to build direct air capture megaprojects in the United States have one thing in common: They include academic institutions.

By Corbin Hiar, CLIMATEWIRE | That’s distinct from typical applicants for Department of Energy funding programs, experts say. It is largely due to the emerging nature of direct air capture technology — a collection of fans, filters and piping that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it permanently underground or in long-lasting products like concrete.

There are less than two dozen DAC facilities in operation worldwide, but that could sharply increase when DOE awards $3.5 billion to help build massive DAC hubs in the United States. Scientists believe DAC and other carbon removal technologies need to rapidly deploy in the coming years to avoid damaging levels of global warming that could cause extreme heat waves, disastrous flooding and lead to the collapse of food systems.

“In DAC, it’s still very much an evolving field, and so I think it’s a very different landscape for universities to play a much more active role,” said Joseph Hezir, who served as chief financial officer and a senior adviser in Obama’s DOE. “Hydrogen hubs or industrial decarbonization, those programs are much more targeted to large established industries.”

At least 10 research universities from around the country are seeking DAC hub funding, according to interviews and public announcements. DOE hasn’t disclosed the names of the applicants, which are aiming to eventually develop DAC facilities capable of removing 1 million metric tons of CO2 per year. Climeworks’ Orca plant, the largest DAC facility in operation today, removes 4,000 tons annually.

Academics aid DAC development

Some institutions — like Cornell University and the University of Wyoming — hope to lead regional or statewide feasibility studies of certain DAC technologies. Others aim to help with specific projects, such as one DAC hub that Shell is pursuing with Louisiana State University and the University of Houston. Other schools — led by the University of California, Berkeley — want to research alternative business models for DAC hubs.

Making DAC work scientifically and financially "is a challenging task," said Christoph Gebald, the co-CEO of Climeworks who co-founded the firm while working on a mechanical engineering doctorate at ETH Zurich. "You need people who are very well educated in engineering disciplines, all across the board, and in natural sciences, like physics and chemistry, to get this done."

Climeworks is collaborating with several universities on building DAC facilities in the U.S.

The University of Illinois' Prairie Research Institute, along with the National Energy Technology Laboratory and other commercial partners, is evaluating the feasibility of deploying Climeworks' technology in several areas with different regional climates and geologic formations. The coalition is looking at test sites in Louisiana, Wyoming and Southern California near the Salton Sea. That study was partially funded by a separate DOE program in 2022.

For the DAC hub competition, the Swiss firm collaborated on a regional feasibility study application with the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center.

Climeworks is also involved in a project intended for Kern County, Calif., that includes researchers from UCLA; California State University, Bakersfield; and the University of Michigan as well as a few national labs. The oil company California Resources Corp. is leading the effort and seeking $12.5 million in matching funds to advance the project.

UCLA sees the project as a way to test some its carbon removal technologies outside of the lab.

"You don't want knowledge that you developed to be orphaned. And if you don't want knowledge to be orphaned, you need a way for some of the knowledge to go out into the real world," said Gaurav Sant, the director of UCLA's Institute for Carbon Management. "That's what these hubs and other things like them allow."

The University of Michigan is helping with the carbon lifecycle analysis that would be needed for the project while CSU Bakersfield is working on community engagement.

Other schools are also eyeing Kern County as a potential DAC hub location.

UC Berkeley wants to study how the area's residents could benefit from a facility that pulls carbon dioxide, and potentially other pollutants, out of the sky. Kern County, the heart of California's oil industry, has long had the worst air quality in the nation.

"We're going to explore innovative ownership models, including the possibility of a sort of public ownership or a public authority," said Louise Bedsworth, the executive director of UC Berkeley's Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. The idea, she said, is to center "community vision, goals and values in how we're designing and thinking about the hub."

UC Berkeley's partners include the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the DAC company Capture6, and carbon utilization firms Blue Planet and Mosaic Materials.

DOE plans to make its initial DAC hub selections around the end of next month. Other groups that have said they are competing for the matching funds include industrial conglomerate General Electric, geothermal startup Fervo Energy and the DAC company Global Thermostat.

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