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It’s a simple idea: strip CO2 from the air and use it to produce carbon-neutral fuel. But can it work on an industrial scale?

It’s nothing much to look at, but the tangle of pipes, pumps, tanks, reactors, chimneys and ducts on a messy industrial estate outside the logging town of Squamish in western Canada could just provide the fix to stop the world tipping into runaway climate change and substitute dwindling supplies of conventional fuel.

It could also make Harvard superstar physicist David Keith, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and oil sands magnate Norman Murray Edwards more money than they could ever dream of.

The idea is grandiose yet simple: decarbonise the global economy by extracting global-warming carbon dioxide (CO2) straight from the air, using arrays of giant fans and patented chemical whizzery; and then use the gas to make clean, carbon-neutral synthetic diesel and petrol to drive the world’s ships, planes and trucks.

The hope is that the combination of direct air capture (DAC), water electrolysis and fuels synthesis used to produce liquid hydrocarbon fuels can be made to work at a global scale, for little more than it costs to extract and sell fossil fuel today. This would revolutionise the world’s transport industry, which emits nearly one-third of total climate-changing emissions. It would be the equivalent of mechanising photosynthesis.

The individual technologies may not be new, but their combination at an industrial scale would be groundbreaking. Carbon Engineering, the company set up in 2009 by leading geoengineer Keith, with money from Gates and Murray, has constructed a prototype plant, installed large fans, and has been extracting around one tonne of pure CO2 every day for a year. At present it is released back into the air.

But Carbon Engineering (CE) has just passed another milestone. Working with California energy company Greyrock, it has now begun directly synthesising a mixture of petrol and diesel, using only CO2 captured from the air and hydrogen split from water with clean electricity – a process they call Air to Fuels (A2F).

“A2F is a potentially game-changing technology, which if successfully scaled up will allow us to harness cheap, intermittent renewable electricity to drive synthesis of liquid fuels that are compatible with modern infrastructure and engines,” says Geoff Holmes of CE. “This offers an alternative to biofuels and a complement to electric vehicles in the effort to displace fossil fuels from transportation.”

The next step is to raise the money, scale up and then commercialise the process using low-carbon electricity like solar PV (photovoltaics). Company publicity envisages massive walls of extractor fans sited outside cities and on non-agricultural land, supplying CO2 for fuel synthesis, and eventually for direct sequestration.

“A2F is the future,” says Holmes, “because it needs 100 times less land and water than biofuels, and can be scaled up and sited anywhere. But for it to work, it will have to reduce costs to little more than it costs to extract oil today, and – even trickier – persuade countries to set a global carbon price.”

Meanwhile, 4,500 miles away, in a large blue shed on a small industrial estate in the South Yorkshire coalfield outside Sheffield, the UK Carbon Capture and Storage Research Centre (UKCCSRC) is experimenting with other ways to produce negative emissions.

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