CLEANTECH BUZZ: Carbon sucker

New climate research suggesting we may have to remove vast quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere if emissions keep rising after 2020 might sound like bad news, but for David Keith it probably counts as a win. The Harvard University physics professor heads up a start-up called Carbon Engineering that is building a machine that aims to do just that: suck large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air. Based at the University of Calgary's Alberta campus, Keith is working hard on developing a large-scale carbon-sucking prototype – a rig the size of a small truck – and while the project is running some months behind schedule, reports that its progress has managed to attract the attention of venture capitalists.

Keith points out the idea of using technology to remove carbon from the air is not new – it's been going on since the 1950s, he says – but his goal is to find a way to do it affordably on a grand scale. "Our interest is in building full-scale commercial systems that would take tens of thousands of tons – or more – of CO2 out of the air," he told NPR. "A lot of my colleagues who are experts in energy technology say it's a total joke to take CO2 out of the air, and it must cost thousands of dollars a tonne carbon," Keith says. "When we began looking hard at it, we became convinced that that really wasn't right. ...When you do the engineering, it turns out it's not as hard as you think."

The machine works using a three-step process to filter air and suck out the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Here's how NPR explains it: "Fans draw air through a 31-foot-long chamber filled with wavy plastic material. Water laced with sodium hydroxide will run down that plastic and react with carbon dioxide to pull it out of the air. After that part of the machine is up and running reliably, Keith plans to test various chemical systems to complete the process – that is, to recycle the chemical that captures carbon dioxide, and to create a pure stream of CO2 gas, which can then be buried underground," or put to use in other applications, such as pumping it underground to push up oil. Keith says oil produced in this way would count as a low-carbon fuel, since the process takes carbon out of the air.

"We think we could make hydrocarbon fuels that had substantially lower life-cycle carbon emissions than conventional gasoline," Keith says. "And I think that is both genuinely important for the environment and also potentially lucrative under the emerging standards for low-carbon fuels, like the California low-carbon-fuel standard." And it looks like the venture capitalists can see this potential too. "We think there's a great business opportunity in solving the world's global warming issues," says Chrysalix CFO Mike Walkinshaw – who recently visited Alberta to view the protoytype. "We think the problem will become more manifest in the next few years and the world's going to be looking for answers. And they'll be willing to pay for it."

Australia's top cleantceh ideas

The federal government has named the 11 finalists chosen from the 70 entries into its Australian Clean Technologies Ideas Competition – a key initiative of the Gillard government's Supplier Advocate Program, that is supported by Enterprise Connect, Commercialisation Australia, the
CSIRO and Austrade. On announcing the finalists, federal innovation minister Kim Carr said the entries showcased concepts that ranged from innovative solutions to tackle pollution, energy efficiency, renewable energies, green buildings, smart electricity grids and new transportation systems, and highlighted the world-class calibre of Australian business creativity. “This competition encourages developing high-tech, high-skill businesses to reduce our reliance on carbon and boost energy efficiency," Senator Carr said. "The development of clean technology ideas such as those submitted to this competition will grow these industries, creating new jobs, new products and new markets."

As part of being shortlisted, the finalists will be mentored by the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research and competition partners during an intensive business and skills workshop, in an effort to help make their ideas a commercial reality. The competition winner will be announced at an awards dinner in Sydney on October 6, and will go on to represent Australia at the international Cleantech Open Global Ideas Competition in the US, competing against entrants from 90 countries.

And the finalists are...

Fusion alliance

The prospects of generating electricity from nuclear fusion got a boost earlier this month with the formation of a UK-US alliance geared at transforming the long-shot technology into a viable commercial clean energy source. UK company AWE and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory – the place where the concept of fusion energy was first proved – have joined with America's National Ignition Facility (Nif), the three groups signing a memorandum of understanding at a meeting sponsored by the UK's Institute of Physics and held at London's Royal Society. BBC News says the meeting attracted scientists and industry members keen to promote wider UK involvement with the technology. "This is an absolutely classic example of the connections between really high-grade theoretical scientific research, business and commercial opportunities, and of course a fundamental human need: tackling pressures that we're all familiar with on our energy supply," said David Willetts, the UK's science minister. "I think that what's going on both in the UK and in the US shows that we are now making significant progress on this technology," he said. "It can't any longer be dismissed as something on the far distant horizon."

NIF's fusion concept fires lasers at pellets of fuel made of isotopes of hydrogen called deuterium and tritium, to compress them to hundredths of their starting size. The hydrogen nuclei then fuse to create helium and neutrons whose energy, in the form of heat, can be captured and used to drive a steam turbine. The long-standing problem for this tehcnology has been reaching "breakeven," where more energy is produced than is consumed. Nif's main goal is to achieve "ignition" of the fuel (for which Nif is named) – a self-sustaining fusion reaction that would far surpass breakeven. Nif's director, Ed Moses, told BBC News in an interview that his team in California was "on the verge of proving scientific feasibility of laser fusion energy." And if that does happen, he said, "then we would change the geopolitics of energy worldwide – I mean you would be using seawater, or any water, as your source of fuel. And cities like London would need something like 10,000 litres a year... for all the fuel that (they) would need." 

And Sir Phillip Knight, president of the institute of physics is confident about the progress of the technology too. "The scientific evidence looks like we'll be able to demonstrate proof of principle within the next 18 months," he said. Recently, a single shot from the Nif's laser – the largest in the world – released a million billion neutrons and produced, for a fraction of a second, more power than the world was consuming. But for ignition, that number would need to rise by about a factor of 1,000.