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16th August 2023

Megaton-scale direct air capture (DAC) projects announced in U.S.

Two gigantic new direct air capture (DAC) facilities are being developed in the U.S., which together could remove millions of metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. These projects are the largest ever investment in engineered carbon removal.


megaton scale direct air capture dac
Credit: Carbon Engineering


As global temperatures continue to rise, the race is on to find innovative solutions to the looming climate crisis. Renewable energy, although the most promising of the various clean technologies, is just one of several tools needed for this challenge.

Not only must we slow the increase of carbon dioxide (CO2), we also need to address the legacy emissions already present in our atmosphere, which are now estimated to be over 1,000 gigatons (Gt). Afforestation and reforestation schemes are one way of achieving this. However, trees need many years to grow and may ironically be harmed by the impacts of climate change – such as droughts or wildfires – before they can reach full maturity.

A technological approach has emerged in recent years, which could mimic the carbon-absorbing capabilities of natural vegetation, while also having the potential to be rapidly scaled up, perhaps to very significant capacities. Direct air capture (DAC) is a process for extracting CO2 directly from the ambient air, much like trees do during photosynthesis but at an accelerated rate. Unlike natural processes that are vulnerable to environmental stressors, DAC systems can operate continuously under controlled conditions, irrespective of climatic variations. Furthermore, in addition to being stored underground, the filtered CO2 can be repurposed for industrial applications.

We have previously reported on Climeworks and its "Orca" plant, built in Iceland, which is capturing 4,000 tons of CO2 per year. Other companies have been springing up in recent years and there are now 27 DAC plants operating worldwide, according to the International Energy Agency. These are now absorbing a combined total of 11,000 tons of CO2/year. But that is only a fraction of humanity's 36,800,000,000 tons emitted in 2022 alone. The task appears daunting.


Direct air capture (DAC) global operating capacity 2010-2022


We live in exponential times, however. From the doubling of solar power capacities every few years, to the surging sales of electric vehicles, the pace of technological change is becoming astonishingly rapid. Climeworks is already planning a next-generation facility called "Mammoth" capable of removing up to 36,000 tons of CO2 per year when fully operational – an order of magnitude larger than Orca. A further 130 new DAC plants are at various stages of development by other companies around the world.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has just announced the most ambitious effort yet. As part of President Biden's Investing in America plan, the DOE is awarding up to $1.2 billion to advance the development of two large-scale DAC facilities in Louisiana and Texas.

The first, Project Cypress, is a collaboration between Climeworks Corporation, Heirloom Carbon Technologies, and Gulf Coast Sequestration, alongside the nonprofit organisation Battelle. Located in southwest Louisiana, it aims to capture more than 1 million metric tons of existing CO2 from the atmosphere each year and store it permanently deep underground. The project will rely on Gulf Coast Sequestration for offtake and geologic storage of the CO2. Up to 2,300 new jobs are expected to be created, with a goal to hire workers formerly employed by the fossil fuel industry for 10% of the overall workforce.

The second project, South Texas DAC Hub, will be located on the King Ranch in Kleberg County, Texas. A partnership between Carbon Engineering, 1PointFive, and engineering company Worley, this will also capture 1 million tons of CO2 per year. The first DAC plant at South Texas DAC Hub is expected to create around 2,500 new jobs in construction, operations, and maintenance. It has the potential to be greatly scaled up in the future, perhaps reaching as much as 30 million tons per year. The site includes 106,000 acres of pore space, with an ultimate capacity estimated at 3 billion metric tons of CO2 within saline formations.

In addition to grants for these two projects, the DOE also launched initiatives to lower DAC technology's cost to below $100 per net metric ton of CO2-equivalent by the end of this decade.

"Cutting back on our carbon emissions alone won't reverse the growing impacts of climate change; we also need to remove the CO2 that we've already put into the atmosphere, which nearly every climate model makes clear is essential to achieving a net-zero economy by 2050. With this once-in-a-generation investment, the DOE is laying the foundation for a direct air capture industry crucial to tackling climate change – transforming local economies and delivering healthier communities along the way," said Jennifer M. Granholm, U.S. Secretary of Energy.

The projects announced for Louisiana and Texas will each remove 250 times more CO2 than the world's current largest DAC facility. Megaton-scale CO2 removal could see widespread deployment in the 2030s, as it becomes an essential tool in the fight against climate change. This might be followed by gigaton-scale projects in the 2040s and beyond. Ultimately, we may succeed in restoring Earth's atmospheric CO2 to its pre-industrial level: a goal for our descendants in the 22nd or 23rd centuries, perhaps.


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