Hey, Why Don’t We Just Suck the CO2 Out of the Air and Use It?

by Greg Pollowitz


Global industrialization has poured carbon in the sky, and now we must pay the price: the nasty specter of climate change, with its sinking islands and superstorms. But what if we could bring some of that carbon dioxide back down to earth?

Direct air capture (DAC) is the scooping of carbon from the sky. Unlike traditional carbon capture and storage, DAC doesn’t try to simply capture carbon from chimneys and factory flues; instead it scoops carbon directly from the atmosphere, no intermediate steps necessary. Better yet, the most sophisticated DAC plants don’t even need much electricity to function—they run on excess heat produced by other industrial processes. The temperatures needed to capture a ton of atmospheric carbon dioxide are “less than what is needed to boil your cup of tea,” says Graciela Chichilnisky, founder of direct air capture company Global Thermostat.

The CO2 removed from the air by plants like Chichilnisky’s has a variety of applications: It can be frozen into dry ice, introduced to greenhouses as plant food, used to carbonate beverages and even injected into oil wells in a process known as “enhanced oil recovery.”

“A lot of demand for CO2 is unmet,” says Chichilnisky. “In fact there’s a market for it that exceeds one trillion dollars per year.”

Companies like Chichilnisky’s want to profit from this unmet demand, an aggressive example of doing well while doing good. Global Thermostat’s pilot plant at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California, has been profitable since construction finished, says Chichilnisky: The cost of producing compressed carbon dioxide via direct air capture is “minuscule” compared to compressed CO2’s sale price. Now she wants to build plants elsewhere, using the excess heat from power plants and foundries. “If the technology shows the way to be profitable is by cleaning up the atmosphere then this will be the strongest motivation for the world to attack climate change.”

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