Talking Direct Air Capture of Atmospheric CO2 with Peter Fiekowsky


Peter Fiekowsky joined Earth911’s Sustainability In Your Ear podcast recently to explain direct air capture, a technology that extracts carbon dioxide from the air. Peter also spoke with Earth911 in June about ocean iron fertilization, another approach to sequestering carbon on the ocean floor. His organization, the Healthy Climate Alliance, is working to lobby and build funding for carbon reduction projects around the world. He recently met with Pope Francis, who has begun a global movement to address climate change. Peter is one of the movers and shakers in climate restoration and we are pleased he returned to Earth911 to talk more. 

Peter Fiekowsky, founder of the Healthy Climate Alliance.

Read the transcript below and take another listen to Peter Fiekowsky’s carbon capture interview:

Listen to “EARTH911 Sustainability In Your Ear Podcast, July 23, 2018: Carbon Capture with Peter Fiekowsky” on Spreaker.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Welcome to Sustainability in Your Ear, the Earth 911 podcast. I’m honored to be joined again by Peter Fiekowsky, who is the director and founder of the Healthy Climate Alliance. Check him out at Peter, last time we spoke you talked with us about ocean iron fertilization as a way of capturing carbon and sequestering it in the deep ocean. This time, we want to talk about direct air capture, which is a new technology, or technology that is certainly coming to form and being talked about a lot more. What is direct air capture of carbon dioxide?

Peter Fiekowsky: Great. Mitch thanks, it’s great to be on again. So, direct air capture of carbon dioxide is a method of concentrating the CO2 into a pipe with which you can do something with that CO2. So, if you want to bury the CO2, you’ve got to concentrate it. And direct air capture is the standard way to do that. And there is a range of methods, and I’ll let you ask questions to get down to that.

Mitch Ratcliffe: There are several methods, I’ve been reading a lot about this since we first started talking. And the two most common seem to have to do with the amount of humidity in the capture medium. Either you can have a wet thing, expose it to carbon dioxide, dry it out, that releases the carbon dioxide. Or conversely you could have a dry thing that captures it, and by making it wet, it releases the carbon dioxide. Those two forms of direct air capture rely on moving that material into a confined space where it can release it and be captured in the pipeline like you were talking about. How do those work generally? Where would you find that kind of an installation in a world where we were doing direct air capture? Would it be just anywhere, or would it be in specifics parts of the country?

Peter Fiekowsky: Let me just explain a little bit on what you said. There is a number of processes which are purely chemical. So, they wet chemical and you essentially bubble the air or exhaust from a power plant through a solution where the CO2 is absorbed chemically. They do more chemistry on it, such that eventually the CO2 is emitted in a sheer form. And then there are two general methods using either amines or resins, which absorb CO2 at room temperature and humidity. And then you could either heat it up, and the heat will release the CO2 from the chemical from the surface or use water and other chemicals. The water will displace the CO2, and it will emit it. And so, the water methods are lower energy, and they work great in low humidity areas, so in the desert of course.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Okay, so you can pick the right technology for the environment you’re in.

Peter Fiekowsky: That’s right.

Mitch Ratcliffe: One of the things that I’ve seen is [a picture of] what looks like the world’s largest window frame air conditioner. It’s just a bank of fans. Is that just a design that’s out there or is that something that’s real? We see these banks of fans along the side of the freeway capturing our carbon dioxide.

Peter Fiekowsky: Not likely. In our imagination, I believe the picture that’s shown very frequently was done with Photoshop. But I don’t know that for sure. And either way is fine; I use that picture a lot because it wakes up people’s brains. They say “oh, I get it. You’re actually pulling CO2 out of the air.” The method that I happen to be most friendly to is the humidity swing. And it’s been promoted by Klaus Lackner out at Arizona State University. And he’s designed it so it just uses the wind because he figures if you have to power fans, that could use up a lot of power. If you design it so just the wind is enough, then the energy consumption [involved in capturing carbon dioxide] goes way down.

Mitch Ratcliffe: There was an article in Science a few weeks back that essentially concluded that they had overestimated the cost of direct air capture pretty dramatically and they’re saying that they can go from $100 a ton of carbon dioxide captured to as little as $20 by 2025. Is that dependent on funding? How do we get to that level of efficiency?

Peter Fiekowsky: It’s like getting manufactured that the more you build, the lower the price goes. Solar panels are a good example of that. They started out 30 years ago, or 40 years ago, I don’t remember the number, $200 a watt or something, $500 a watt. And now it’s $1 a watt, and down to 30 cents a watt. It’s a matter of the more you make, the better you get at making it. What’s nice about things, again like the Lachner method, is it really has very few moving parts, so getting the price way down is highly likely. That doesn’t look like it’ll be expensive in the end.

Mitch Ratcliffe: So, scale answers that question, you do more of it, you get a cheaper output.

Peter Fiekowsky: There’s one other aspect, and that is the energy. You do need the energy to release the CO2 from whatever the substrate is. In most cases you can just use waste energy from a factory, from a power plant, there’s a lot of waste heat which is free, and that’s a big cost saver.

Mitch Ratcliffe: But on the funding front there are, and one of the arguments about the carbon capture is it needs some funding from the United States government to really get this going. There are two bills in the Congress, the Future Act, and the Use IT Act, which would extensively provide some support for this research. Should Earth 911 listeners be calling and writing to their representatives to support those bills to see this happen?

Peter Fiekowsky: I’m not familiar with those bills in particular. They’re probably not going to pass in this Congress, most of those bills get Congress familiar with the language and with the idea and then get passed in future Congresses. We may have a more progressive Congress in the future, in which case things will change. For now, the biggest thing that I would call on listeners to do is to think about the outcome, is what we want to do is get the carbon out, and the most important thing is to realize that we have to do a trillion tons of it.

Mitch Ratcliffe: And when you say a trillion tons that sounds completely overwhelming, but you have a goal and a plan to get us to this by 2040 to 2050. When do we need to start for that to happen?

Peter Fiekowsky: We should start as soon as possible. We’re losing species every day, and those species won’t come back. New ones will, of course, eventually take their place, so every day we wait is a species lost, so to speak. And then the question is what’s the action to take? And the main action to take is to focus our climate work on restoration. Up until now, we’ve been focusing on mitigation, on reducing emissions. And most of the carbon dioxide removal projects have been focused on trying to get to the point where they’re canceling out current emissions. Which is great but it’s a factor-of-ten scaling difference. And whenever you have a factor-of-ten difference in scale or technology, then you generally have a totally different view. You’ve got a different set of solutions, and so the first step is to focus on restoration because then people will focus on the solutions that make the biggest difference.

Mitch Ratcliffe: So, just very briefly about the physical impacts that people would see if we did get the carbon level back to preindustrial level, what would happen to the world?

Peter Fiekowsky: Man, you just say that, and I’m smiling.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Well, I hope you’re smiling for a long time.

Peter Fiekowsky: Yeah. When we — I’m not going to say “if” I’m going to say “when” because there are a lot of us who are committed to doing this and we’re not going to stop until we’re done. When we get the [atmospheric] carbon back down to 300 parts per million or below, what it was when our species developed and when our civilization developed, then we’ll find that the glaciers will stop melting, you’ll see the levels stabilize. But best of all is some of these horrible floods and fires, and extreme weather conditions will stabilize. It means that agriculture will be easier, we won’t need to install air conditioning up in Alaska, and things like that.

Mitch Ratcliffe: And we won’t need to spend so much money on insurance for things that are truly devastating and can’t be paid in any other way than sharing across society. So, that raises interesting questions and we’ve talked about this before, people have resistance to carbon capture because they believe it might, well some people believe that climate change isn’t happening and hey good for them but let’s ignore them for right now. But there’s another group of people saying if we don’t focus on other aspects such as carbon emission reduction or reforestation, that we will be missing something. And I don’t think that anyone is suggesting one solution is going to be right but there is a tendency to say if you adopt that one, my solution won’t get the same attention, so we’re contending over this even though, in fact, everybody is aiming in the same direction. What’s the right tool mix in your opinion and what’s the benefit of that mix regarding carbon reduction?

Peter Fiekowsky: I like how you started that there are people who say we shouldn’t do carbon capture at all because that doesn’t reduce emissions. And what most people think and hear about the climate is that our main goal is to zero out net emissions. And that’s a good thing, I’m sure, that is a good thing. But that doesn’t fix the climate, that just reduces emissions, and most of us really want to restore the climate, we want a climate that our children will survive and thrive in.

Mitch Ratcliffe: And the trillion tons will still be there even if we stop.

Peter Fiekowsky: Exactly. And so, the number one thing is to change our goal of restoration cause once you do that all the objection to carbon removal goes away. The people who have objected over the decades to big carbon removal projects, they’ve been taking literally what the UN says about climate and reducing emissions and complaining that these various projects don’t reduce emissions. They have good intentions, but we wish they didn’t take the UN quite so literally.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Well and that comes down to what you’re going to measure and how you’re going to determine, or not, your success. Right now, we ask people who are working on reforestation, which should be focused on increasing diversity — animal, or species diversity — to also be concerned about the amount of CO2 that they’re sequestering in their forest. So, we can sort of take that off their shoulders, it sounds like, by pulling the carbon out of the environment, continuing to do the carbon emission reduction, and really let them be foresters rather than carbon specialists.

Peter Fiekowsky: Yeah that’s one thing that I’ve seen in the last few months is I’ve talked to a wider range of activists that as we get better at technologies that we’ll get the trillion tons out. And that’s as I said mineralization on land and photosynthesis in the ocean. Those are the two things that can quite easily get ahold the trillion tons that we need to remove. Once we say that we can do that, that frees up forestry and soil management to do what they’re really intended to do which is enhance the environment, increase diversity, make the bio more stable, and so on.

Mitch Ratcliffe: A broad mix of tools is something that we should encourage people to think about while keeping in mind that no one answer is going to dominate the others, it’s about allocating across those various options. Let’s talk a little about what you get when you capture all this stuff. You’ve been working with, and I believe advising, Blue Planet, which is an organization in San Jose. What are they doing with their carbon?

Peter Fiekowsky: Blue Planet has a process that takes carbon dioxide and turns it into limestone. And they get calcium from different places, it’s a long, complicated story, but there’s lots of calcium around, and then that limestone is called aggregate. It’s the gravel used in concrete, used in roads and buildings. So, their business model is to provide aggregate basically where it’s needed. Because the main cost of aggregate is environmental and you have to ship it, it takes a lot of diesel.

Mitch Ratcliffe: That also comes back, you’ll see these installations everywhere because you’re gonna want to be relatively close to where the material will be put to use. So, you don’t just put more greenhouse gas into the environment to get it there. Blue Planet is actually building the extended runways; they’re providing materials for the extended runways in the new terminal at San Francisco International Airport. When you walk past the building, and you see this [sign describing the direct air capture], you realize it’s been made partly by what’s pulled from the air it’s a really astonishing thing.

Peter Fiekowsky: Yeah. And what’s interesting about them is they started out, and their initial commercial plant opens up in a few months here in the bay area and it uses CO2 from a power plant, from a large gas power plant. Then we’re working with them to develop a direct air capture process so that when they need to produce aggregate in places where there is no fossil fuel power plant or another source of exhaust, they can use the air. And so far, it looks like it’s not going to be very expensive and still be profitable even when it belongs to a tube straight out of the air.

Mitch Ratcliffe: There are a lot of other things you can make with carbon. One of the things I’ve been struck by is I look at the outputs of direct air capture, and even though they don’t necessarily account for all of the carbon emission we need to get rid of everything, carbon is the foundation of our next economy, carbon nanotubes, carbon fiber. And what you need is pure carbon which is what’s left when you get done with this process. It seems like what we’re talking about is turning our whole mining mentality inside out and instead of looking at the ground and thinking what can we get out of there, looking at the air and thinking the same way about a new range of opportunity.

But why, then, do people resist this? We happen to be speaking on July 19, and earlier today the House of Representatives in the United States voted 229 to 180 to endorse a current resolution, which of course has no binding power at all it’s just advice to the president, that a carbon tax would be bad for the economy. That whole mentality gets pushed onto the question of should we do capture, should we do reforestation, otherwise because there’s the belief that it’s all going to hurt our economy and yet we just described raw materials for the economy.

How do we get past this? And I know you have years of lobbying experience around a variety of subjects, what’s the best way to wake our representatives up to the fact that they are literally telling us not to take the steps in the future that could lead to a new economy?

Peter Fiekowsky: The best thing is to make it clear to people that we have a pathway to a place that we want to get to. I would say that the climate movement has been trying to avoid disaster and so when you say that what you picture is a disaster and that’s a conversation nobody wants to have, and I can understand why some of Congress don’t want to have that conversation because who wants to talk about the disaster? If we frame the conversation around giving our children the same healthy climate like our grandparents had, that’s something people do want. Then it’s actually a conservative value that even progressives appreciate.

Mitch Ratcliffe: A prosperity and quality of life argument are the way to go, it sounds like. Having been working with Earth 911 now for six months, I’m really struck by the dichotomy between those that think this is the end of the world, and those who think that maybe humans scrape by sometimes, but we do tend to find our way towards better futures. We simply need to be more aggressive about the positive outcomes that we can achieve rather than talking in terms of the negative impact on all the things that are happening. Because they’re happening to us, they seem like they’re also out of our control. You’ve got a mechanism [in carbon capture], you’ve got a way to move us forward.

Peter Fiekowsky: Yeah. That’s interesting in the climate field, and in most fields, often we use fear or try to use fear to motivate people. If you study the neural system you discover that neurons really don’t have a distinction between good and bad, neurons have distinction stimulus or no stimulus. And so, whatever it is we talk about is what our attention goes on. If it’s disaster, our attention goes on the disaster, and that’s what our actions will be consistent with. And so, if we want a good planet, we draw that picture, draw the bridge that gets us from here to there and then people just naturally without even thinking, it’s just the lower brain, the automatic way we’re wired, takes us to that place that we’re talking about and hopefully we’re talking about what we want, rather than what we don’t want.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Well the place for people to go is to find out more. Can you tell us a little about the organization and your goals and what would happen?

Peter Fiekowsky: Yeah, so our goal is to set a global goal of climate restoration, and we’ve been working with the UN, with the Vatican — I actually spoke with Pope Francis a couple weeks ago — and working in Congress. We have a resolution that should be introduced in the near future saying that our climate goal is to give our children the same healthy climate our grandparents had. And in addition to doing the advocacy work, and really the top leadership level, we’re also working with the companies and organizations that are implementing it so that we can tell people climate restoration is possible, it’s achievable, and it’s happening right now.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Well, Peter first off I wish you the best of luck, and I’ll be doing everything I can to help as well, and everybody does check out Peter’s team is doing phenomenal work, and it’s a full spectrum solution, we’re not just talking about hopes, dreams, and regulations, we’re talking about real business and prosperity as well. Thank you, Peter, for joining us on Sustainability In Your Ear.

Peter Fiekowsky: Mitch, thank you very much. It’s a great pleasure to talk to you and your listeners.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Take care.

Peter Fiekowsky: Thank you.

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Mitch Ratcliffe

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Mitch is the publisher at A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their buying decisions on the planet.