Could This Carbon Capture Idea Catch On?

August 14, 2021

Rooftop cooling towers already exist as part of building HVAC systems. Can they have a dual purpose to capture CO2?

Fast Company:

On top of a nondescript industrial building in the Bay Area city of San Leandro, a company is pioneering a new way to fight climate change: Hacking a cooling tower—the equipment used for air conditioning in large buildings—to help pull CO2 from the atmosphere. So-called direct air capture machines are already in use elsewhere. But they’re expensive to build and run. And by combining the technology with an existing cooling tower, the startup, called Noya, is working to make it more affordable so it can grow faster.

Cofounder and CEO Josh Santos, previously a project manager for electric vehicles at Tesla and Harley Davidson, started working on the technology with his roommate after conversations about climate change. “We just asked ourselves one day, the climate problem is caused by there being too much CO2 in the sky, so… can we just pull it out, and process it out of the sky? We started looking into this and trying to understand why people weren’t doing this at scale. And what we found was that we’ve had the technology to capture CO2 from the sky since the 1930s. But we haven’t been able to do it cheaply enough, and we haven’t been able to do it quickly.”

Direct air capture plants are typically massive and expensive. One under development in Texas, designed to eventually capture a million metric tons of CO2 a year, likely will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Santos and cofounder Daniel Cavero, his former roommate, started thinking about how to reduce the cost. They eventually realized that cooling towers could be part of the solution. The devices already use fans to pull in outside air, just like typical direct air capture machines.

“Cooling towers are basically big boxes that have a fan on top of them that pulls in air from the ambient environment,” says Santos. Inside, the devices use water as part of the process of cooling. The company adds chemicals to the water, which allows it to soak up carbon from the air in the system. Since the fans, pumps, and other parts of the cooling tower are already running, combining the processes helps save energy. The CO2 is stored onsite, and additional equipment pressurizes the gas so it can be taken elsewhere and sold.

The startup is partnering with companies that operate their own cooling towers. The first, in San Leandro, is the creamery for a regenerative dairy. Companies pay nothing to participate; Noya pays for the cost of installation and the cost of the equipment, along with any incidental operating costs that the process might add to the building. The startup also manages collection of the CO2 and selling it, giving a small percentage of the proceeds back to the building owner. “We tried to make this as easy as possible for companies to work with us, because the fact of the matter is that we need to be pulling as much CO2 down from the sky as possible,” Santos says.

At scale, he says, the company expects to be able to capture CO2 for less than $100 a ton, which is the price target the rest of the direct air capture is aiming for. (In 2019, another direct air capture company said that at its current costs, the price was around $500-$600 a ton.) Planting trees, unsurprisingly, is a much cheaper way to capture carbon from the air. But because of the huge scale of carbon capture that’s necessary and because relying on trees has risks, like the fact that trees can burn in forest fires, technological solutions will be necessary along with nature-based solutions.

There are around 2 million cooling towers in the U.S., making it possible to build a huge network of carbon capture devices. The startup plans to begin with the Bay Area, and set up a system that sells the CO2 to local breweries, bars, and restaurants to carbonate drinks. That carbon still gets released into the atmosphere, though, so ultimately, it plans to sell to companies that can capture the carbon more permanently, like concrete companies that can embed CO2 in their product. If it can eventually work with every cooling tower in the country, the team has calculated that it could capture 10 billion tons of CO2 each year, as much as some scientists predict will be needed to be removed by the middle of the century.

29 Responses to “Could This Carbon Capture Idea Catch On?”

  1. Vernon Brechin Says:

    At the rate things are going we are unlikely to reach the middle of the century in a condition which will support such existing infrastructure. This entrepreneur pitch is just another distraction targeting those who are hungry for hope.

    The proposal fails to include a comprehensive analysis of the ultimate level of CO2 removal needed to offset the human dumping of hundreds-of-millions of years of stored carbon into the earth’s atmosphere during the last two-hundred years of the industrial revolution.

  2. ecoquant Says:

    At scale, he says, the company expects to be able to capture CO2 for less than $100 a ton, which is the price target the rest of the direct air capture is aiming for.

    *sigh*

    Assuming the infrastructure can be built, it is tiring to read these stories (*) without people explaining the cost of drawing down CO2 at US$100 per tonne.

    First, drawdown can never technologically keep up with emissions at the current pace. They might be able to tread water if emissions overall are a fifth or a quarter of the present pace. Emissions currently at 50 GtCO2 per annum.

    Second, even if they could, do the math: That’s US$5 trillion per year just to keep in place. Some of the emissions cannot be drawn out of atmosphere, particularly N2O. We just need to wait the few centuries for that to disappear. Oh, and replace using conventional fertilizer for crops because that’s what emits most of it.

    Third, assuming emissions are zeroed, to draw down 1 ppm CO2 (**) costs US$2 trillion each, at US$100 per tonne.

    Fourth, even if all the CO2 we’ve emitted were drawn out, the climate would not cool, not by much. That’s because 90% (now 95%) of each additional joule of heat that radiative forcing imparts to the planet goes into the oceans. Cool the atmosphere and the oceans will restore thermodynamic equilibrium. There’s a lot of heat there.

    So, zeroing emissions will stop things warming after a settling out time of a few decades. Things will stop getting worse. But they won’t get better.

    You can’t go home again. Don’t put it there in the first place. There are no short cuts.

    (*) I admit they are not as tiring as reading people arguing that afforestation can do better or even manage at all.

    (**) Actually, to draw out 1 ppm CO2 from atmosphere demands drawing out 2.5 ppm CO2. That’s because when 2.5 ppm of CO2 are emitted, 1.5 goes into oceans and soils in gaseous equilibrium. (That’s completely different to being sequestered.) But when 1 ppm of CO2 from atmosphere drawn out, some comes back out of the soils and oceans. (Not instantaneously but over a couple of decades.) So to really draw down the 1 ppm CO2 from atmosphere it needs to be done in a way that the equilibrium with oceans and soils is retained, and that means taking out the full 2.5 ppm CO2. The US$2 trillion figure reflects that. 7.9 GtCO2 per ppm CO2/0.40 x 1 billion tonnes CO2 per GtCO2 x US$100/tonne CO2.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      First, drawdown can never technologically keep up with emissions at the current pace.

      As long as it’s cost-effective, and can keep some systems from adding to the problem, I’m OK with it not representing a total solution. Changing out incandescent light bulbs, combining errands if you drive a combustion vehicle and insulating your house helps, too.

      Maybe “a million slingshots” won’t solve the ultimate problem, but it might help (as they said at the beginning of the pandemic) flatten the curve.

  3. Vernon Brechin Says:

    Much more than cooling towers are needed to capture CO2 from the atmosphere. It requires additional equipment that isn’t currently located at such sites. This article didn’t address that nor did it address if the current operations would be affected by the additional use of the cooling towers. Additives will likely be added to the cooling water of those towers to capture CO2. That would result in downwind spray of those additives. This article failed to include such an issue. Far more needs to be looked into that goes well beyond what the promoters have pedded to the media.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Far more needs to be looked into that goes well beyond what the promoters have pedded to the media.

      Absolutely. That’s always the new case with ventures being promoted.

      They’ve got an idea, and they’re creating a proof-of-concept. The idea junkyard will be full of such ideas, but more people are trying and learning from new things.

      (Personally, my favorite carbon capture system is trees, but even they come with their own problems.)

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        What RWC said above and below. Remember, whatever mitigation costs, it is way way cheaper than letting the world cook. And plant trees anyway.

  4. redskylite Says:

    We really need to come up with money and solutions, to scrub our atmosphere, trees are burning up so fast in today’s climate.
    ========================================================
    Effectively removing CO2 from the atmosphere

    “Depending on the combination of technology used and the specific location, CO2 can be removed from the air with an effectiveness of up to 97 percent.”

    https://www.psi.ch/en/media/our-research/effectively-removing-co2-from-the-atmosphere

    • redskylite Says:

      “Putin Calls Siberian Wildfires ‘Unprecedented,’ Calls For Stronger Response

      “We see, we understand that the scale of natural disasters is absolutely unprecedented,” Putin said in the video conference.

      https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-putin-siberia-fires/31410681.html

    • ecoquant Says:

      Maybe 97%, but we’ve put a lot more CO2 and CH4 into atmosphere, way more than burning trees does. In fact, if it wasn’t for wildfire suppression, a lot of those trees probably would have burned anyway. People consider it inconvenient when natural fires burn through their developments of fixed homes.

      • redskylite Says:

        Plus how many years does it take to regrow/recover the lost (to wildfire) part of a forest so they can start useful carbon sequestration.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          The problem is the increasing aridification of areas making them less friendly to trees in the future.

      • redskylite Says:

        According Colorado State Forest Service it can take 60 -100 years to fully restore Juniper trees – as unprecedented fires are taking place in the Taiga at the moment, we are diminishing carbon uptake from the atmosphere for up to a century ? A lot of this forest is unmanaged by humans, so left to nature to recover. Climate change is increasing the occurrence of wildfire. Let’s get scrubbing post-haste, before the madcap geo-engineering solutions are let loose on the planet’s unfortunate creatures.

        Click to access 06307.pdf

        • ecoquant Says:

          If you read what I wrote carefully, you’ll see I’m so fan of afforestation as a sequestration solution.

          But Direct Air Capture doesn’t work either, especially vid we are still emitting.

          As I pointed out there (a) it’s too slow, and (b) it’s too expensive.

          I won’t reply any more until you read and understand what I wrote. At the moment there’s no evidence you do, and to paraphrase Pollonous you are very like a troll.

          • ecoquant Says:

            “so” –> “no”. Hazards of replying from phones.

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            Fortunately, trees have their own upsides even before sequestration comes into the picture, like adding shade and reducing the heat island effect of urban areas, providing windbreaks in flat areas, giving homes for a great variety of critters, and many making fruit and nuts in our own yards.

          • redskylite Says:

            “Direct Air Capture doesn’t work” – Don’t tell Climeworks and the forthcoming “ORCA” project in Iceland. Never been called a “Troll” before and never studied any Shakespeare at all – but do you mean Polonius ?

          • redskylite Says:

            If enough Enterprises start Atmospheric scrubbing schemes spread over the globe, coupled with restoration and protection of marine ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass and kelp, and protecting and enhancing forests, agricultural improvements and of course ceasing to emit CO2 and methane and other GHG gases at least we are putting up a fight and have a chance to put a dent in the upward rise of temperatures.

            I just don’t accept that it is not worth pursuing with DAC technology as so many people are putting effort into it.

            https://www.energylivenews.com/2021/08/20/virgin-atlantic-eyes-direct-air-capture-tech-for-carbon-offsetting/

          • ecoquant Says:

            Yeah but it also is the quintessential government green washing fig leaf: “We know the CO2 is still going up, but it’s not us because we’re doing Carbon capture.” Nothing means anything unless everyone is being quantitative. “We’re doing all we can, we can’t afford to do more.,” Of course they can’t. I can tell you now they can’t. Sometimes doing nothing for the sake of doing something is worse than doing nothing.

            If you want to make a pact with the devil sign up for the Keith style Solar Radiation Management. That’s relatively cheap. And it’s likely to work. But once started it can NEVER be stopped.

          • ecoquant Says:

            Yeah but it also is the quintessential government green washing fig leaf: “We know the CO2 is still going up, but it’s not us because we’re doing Carbon capture.” Nothing means anything unless everyone is being quantitative. “We’re doing all we can, we can’t afford to do more.,” Of course they can’t. I can tell you now they can’t. Sometimes doing anything for the sake of doing something is worse than doing nothing.

            If you want to make a pact with the devil sign up for the Keith style Solar Radiation Management. That’s relatively cheap. And it’s likely to work. But once started it can NEVER be stopped.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        I recognize and share your frustration of politicians and corporations overhyping the value of what they’re doing to reduce the GHG problem.

        Trees are good, but not that good. I’d say a “forest” worth of trees planted in urban and suburban areas have more benefit than a monoculture grid out in the plain. (My jays, cardinals, doves and tree rats agree!)

        Planting trees along selected margins of landscapes is good for protecting and reclaiming habitat (especially along the Sahel region south of the Sahara), and managing water loss/reclamation. Variety in type and age is best in the long run, habitat-wise.

        As for adding the carbon capture feature to large A/C units, I see that more as an incremental, long-term good. A city might add that requirement to code for large building units (a relatively small increase in cost), or a building contractor could use that to claim an offset for a specific project. (The hyping of the new tech for investors is inevitable.)

  5. Peter Scheffler Says:

    Dang. Seemed pretty clever to me. I hate it when knowledgeable people explain the problems with something!

    Maybe there is some helpful way to use the waste heat that the cooling systems put out. Or what about solar panels to shade them, making them more efficient and producing electricity at the same time?

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      The shading properties of solar panels are a feature all on their own in sunny regions with few trees. Around here (central Texas) the relief of shadows caused by raised highways are so different from the “gloom” they cause in areas like Massachusetts

  6. redskylite Says:

    Reported by Bloomberg – August 16 2021

    =================================

    “Cost to bury carbon near tipping point as emissions price soars ”

    Skyrocketing carbon prices and a “code red” warning about the threat posed by climate change are giving fresh momentum to a technology that captures and removes greenhouse gas emissions so they can be buried.

    The market for these tools could reach $2trn (€1.7trn) if used to cut pollution from heavy industry, according to Credit Suisse. With the cost of carbon more than doubling in the past year and prices set to reach €100 a ton as soon as the middle of this decade, capture technology finally is going mainstream as governments push to reach net zero.

    https://www.independent.ie/business/cost-to-bury-carbon-near-tipping-point-as-emissions-price-soars-40754262.html

    • redskylite Says:

      ===================

      “Fossil Fuel Companies Are Quietly Scoring Big Money for Their Preferred Climate Solution: Carbon Capture and Storage”

      “The budget legislation is also expected to include a program that would force utilities to lower emissions and could provide additional funding to fossil fuel power plants that are fitted with carbon capture technology.”

      https://insideclimatenews.org/news/17082021/carbon-capture-storage-fossil-fuel-companies-climate/

      • ecoquant Says:

        Yeah, but it doesn’t move us where we need to go which is to zero emissions, not just reduce them.

        We’re emitting 50 GtCO2 now (more when CH4 is considered, since CH4 is CO2 in the making), and even if that’s cut in half, 25 GtCO2 is a lot. It’s not like it buys us twice as much time or something.

    • ecoquant Says:

      Yes, it does.

      Kellogg, Louise H., Donald L. Turcotte, and Harsha Lokavarapu. “On the role of the Urey reaction in extracting carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere and adding it to the continental crust.” Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences 6 (2019): 62.

      It’s heavy, though. The biggest source are olivine dikes in the ocean floor, most accessible near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Not surprisingly, because that Ridge goes right through Iceland, there’s a project which combines CO2 with molten basalt there and thereby traps essentially all the CO2. It captures.

      Unfortunately, that facility hasn’t anywhere near the capacity to sequester the 14 GtC we emit per years (x3.67 for CO2, or about 50 GtCO20).

      There are olivine dikes on land, too. However, extracting, crushing, and moving such is very energy intensive. That’s to be expected of most mining of igneous rock.

    • ecoquant Says:

      I just looked this up and not all spreading ridge basalts have olivine in them. Typically, olivine is present as phenocrysts in the basalt, something which is commonly seen in Hawaii.

      Still, basalt can be used to trap CO2, although molten basalt is slow at it. The major company doing this has moved to CO2 injection in water-filled caverns. (See the link for details.) Their ads have a bit of gloss, in that when they say capacity is “unlimited”, they mean for all the far flung places around the globe where similar structures are. They cannot mean their local farm.

      A photograph of basalt which was extracted from a MOR (mid-ocean ridge). The MAR is a MOR but there are many MORs than just the MAR.


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