Bill Gates, Carbon Capture Storage, and trying to save the world

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a sustainability technology which has been deployed with some successes, but only on a small scale. However, some people are working on a CCS plan larger than anyone has thought possible.

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How does CCS work?

CCS collects carbon dioxide from the air, released by the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas for energy generation or in transport. Once filtered from the air, the carbon dioxide is transported and stored.

The CO2 is stored, either by injecting it into depleted oil and gas wells, or it is mixed with other substances to create solid calcite structures (a type of mineral).

CCS has been touted as one of the most important solutions to meeting emissions targets set by the Paris Agreement. Despite the US’s threatened withdrawal from the Agreement, CCS has been explored in the US thanks to $3m in funding distributed by the US Department of Energy.


What’s Bill Gates working on?

According to figures published by the Global CCS Institute, there are 17 large-scale CCS facilities in operation across the world; to date, they have been responsible for the cumulative storage of approximately 250 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2).

To put this into context, in 2017, global emissions were estimated at just over 33.5 billion tonnes.

As such, CCS plays a minor role currently. However, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and the Canadian financier Norman Murray Edwards have invested in a CCS project much more ambitious in scale than any currently on the market. If successful, the venture could ultimately provide a solution on the global level.

The Gates-funded project is hoping to create industrial-style CCS technology capable of directly removing carbon dioxide from the air. Industrial is the correct word; the vision is to scale-up existing technology, which captures about one tonne of CO2 per day, to perform at a much higher rate.

Instead of being stored, as with traditional CCS, the captured carbon would be processed to create synthetic diesel or petrol for use in transport which would be less polluting than regular fuels – an idea with that could lead to ground-breaking development if implemented at scale.

This means that the future-facing technology would be twice as efficient at removing pollutants from the atmosphere as traditional CCS technology. As well as taking carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, it would remove pollutants associated with the use of petrol and diesel in traditional cars. As such, the synthetic fuel would have a lesser environmental impact along the whole supply chain: from extraction through to combustion.

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It would also have an advantage over traditional CCS as the storage element – typically costly and requiring monitoring over several years – is removed from the process to facilitate wider decarbonisation.

As such, the vision put forward by is two-fold: actively reducing the amount of CO2 in the air (vital to reducing the impact of climate change on the planet) and by the wider decarbonisation of the transport sector, which contributes about 23% of global emissions, according to the REN21 Global Status Report 2017.


How else is CCS being used around the world?

CCS is also being explored in other innovative ways. One company is sequestering carbon dioxide by creating limestone which is then used to construct roads and buildings, locking carbon away in building materials. A similar project is underway in Australia.

There is also experimentation in Iceland, where carbon dioxide is being mixed with water before being injected into rock structures. This causes the carbon to form solid carbonate structures – trapping it in mineral form, potentially for much longer than is typical with other storage methods.

Clearly, there are a number of exciting projects taking place around the world which are pushing the envelope on CCS. In the UK, however, it has been much slower to take off. Funding has previously been made available by the UK government, but this has not yet brought a solution to market. Given the importance of CCS to meeting emissions reductions targets, however, this could change soon.