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Military Researching Ways to Suck Carbon From Air to Make Fuel

Jan. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

Technology that would suck carbon dioxide from the air and ocean water could be more quickly scaled up to address climate change now that the military is getting involved, scientists say.

Congress included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act, passed in December, directing the Pentagon to work with the departments of Energy and Homeland Security to research ways to make fuel out of carbon dioxide pulled directly from ocean water and the ambient air.

The Defense Department is researching ways to use carbon capture technology “to address energy security for the military,” including capturing carbon for conversion to military transportation fuel and “alternative fuels or products” to be used at military installations, Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Robert Carver said Jan. 13.

A handful of small companies, such as British Columbia-based Carbon Engineering Ltd., have been researching how to suck carbon from the air and turn it into energy. Scientists say the the military’s involvement will give the fledgling technology a boost.

“It actually makes it more likely that we’re going to make advances more rapidly” because military demand for breakthrough technology creates supply chains and reduces the technology’s cost, easing the technology’s way to commercialization, said Julio Friedmann, a Columbia University carbon capture research scholar and former Energy Department official who oversaw the department’s carbon capture research.

Removing CO2 Essential for Climate

Carbon removal technology is essential to combating climate change because scientists, including those on the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, say countries cannot keep global warming from spiraling out of control only by reducing fossil fuel emissions to zero.

Decades’ worth of carbon pollution will have to be pulled out of the atmosphere in order to keep global warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)—the primary goal of the Paris climate agreement.

But the technology such as giant fans that vacuum carbon dioxide from the air and other methods remain in their infancy and are yet to be proven to work at a scale large enough to make a difference for the climate.

Direct-air-capture technology like the systems Carbon Engineering is designing can be used to make transportation fuel, helping to reduce the need for the fossil fuels driving climate change.

Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering, which has received Energy Department funding, said the military conducting direct-air-capture research is evidence that the federal government recognizes the viability of the technology.

“It’s not the only funding assigned for direct air capture. DOE also received more funding. To our knowledge this is the first time that government R&D funding has identified direct air capture. For us as an industry that’s a really big deal,” Oldham said.

“One of the advantages of our technology is the ability to produce carbon dioxide from any location and then combine that with hydrogen. You can essentially make fuel at any location,” he said.

Carbon180, a carbon removal advocacy group, saw an opportunity for multiple agencies to research negative emissions technology after the National Academies of Sciences published a possible carbon removal research agenda for the federal government in 2018, said Erin Burns, Carbon180 policy director.

Developing technology that could produce fuel for military purposes using direct-air-capture or direct-ocean-capture technology on an aircraft carrier could support military supply lines and readiness, she said.

SEA FUEL Act

Many of the provisions of the NDAA mandating the Defense Department carbon capture and research program were incorporated from the proposed bipartisan SEA FUEL Act (S. 1679 and H.R. 3227), co-sponsored by Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.).

In the NDAA, Congress appropriated $8 million for the military’s carbon removal research in 2020, but Friedmann said he expects that to increase to $10 million annually in 2021 and 2022 based on funding proposed in the SEA FUEL Act.

A $28 million program is definitely enough to start, and if researchers develop promising prototypes, they’ll need a $50 million annual budget, he said.

“Allowing the Navy to field test this technology for real-world uses will not only expand opportunities for future potential commercial use, but also for other DOD related applications as well,” Schweikert told Bloomberg Environment via email.

“For ships out at sea, the potential to capture CO2 from seawater and convert into fuel directly onboard will not only help Naval readiness from a security perspective but also provide a potential to scale-up this technology for wider deployment,” he said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who sponsored the SEA FUEL Act in the Senate, said military research on carbon removal could produce new technologies as military bases are threatened by rising seas and scarcer natural resources spark conflict across the globe.

“Carbon capture and other negative emission technologies, amplified in the private sector, can provide the security benefit of making military installations safer and military conflicts fewer, while blunting the worst consequences of climate change,” Whitehouse said via email.

‘Weird’ Provisions

Some of the provisions of the research program are “a little bit weird,” said Stephen Pacala, a Princeton University climate change and systems ecology professor who was the chair of a committee outlining a federal research agenda on negative emissions technology in a 2018 National Academies of Sciences report.

He said he would expect the Energy Department to take the lead on carbon removal research instead of the Pentagon.

And, Congress used the term “blue carbon” to describe removing dissolved carbon dioxide from seawater, which isn’t the scientific definition of the term, Pacala said.

Scientists have generally stopped using the term “blue carbon” because it is confusing, but they use it refer to carbon that is stored in living plants, tidal marshland sediment, and saltwater wetlands, Pacala said.

He said carbon dioxide found in seawater is less concentrated than it is in the air and can’t easily be used to make transportation fuel.

“One would need to get the CO2 out of it and concentrate it to make fuel,” Pacala said. “This could be done, but it is a big extra step.”

So it’s unclear what use the military would have for it.

“There is a story here that is completely mystifying to me,” Pacala said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Cheryl Saenz at csaenz@bloombergtax.com

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