Saturday Daily Editor Lauren Kahme attended a presentation called “Inventing the Future: Zero Carbon Fuels and Climate Restoration” on Friday morning and learned about innovations in carbon reduction.

Have you ever stopped to think about the air around you? When you take a breath of “fresh air,” is it really even “fresh?” As climate change becomes more publicized in popular media, the concept of a climate crisis has become increasingly politicized and feared. In reality, methods already exist to alleviate the current dilemmas our environment faces. However, multiple financial and political barriers prevent these methods from being put into action.

The discussion, hosted by the Center for Global Energy Policy and the Earth Institute, opened by introducing the moderator and speaker. The moderator, Dr. Julio Friedmann, introduced himself first. Dr. Friedmann is the Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Global Energy Policy here at Columbia, and much of his work concerns carbon removal and conversion. He introduced the speaker, Dr. David Keith, a professor of Applied Physics and Public Policy at Harvard. Dr. Friedmann noted Dr. Keith’s vast knowledge in the field of climate science as he introduced the “accomplished and prolific scientist.”

Dr. Keith began his presentation by outlining the three main points of his talk: Carbon Engineering’s Direct Air Capture process, solar energy becoming fuel, and how emissions cuts or mitigation, carbon removal, solar geoengineering, and adaptation might fit together in optimal climate policy over time. Keith explained how he is a sitting Board Member and Acting Chief Scientist for the company Carbon Engineering (CE), whose claim to fame is that they have developed and utilize advanced technology able to capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. This technology is known as Direct Air Capture (DAC). Initially, the research behind DAC focused on creating a low-cost system of air capture, and to this day, the idea behind it is to use classic chemical and mechanical engineering methods to solve a modern problem. In other words, Keith and his team’s vision for a successful and widespread solution relied on utilizing existing industrial technologies. Keith then begins discussing a crucial part of the DAC process: the Aqueous Air Contactor. This apparatus allows for continuous operation over long periods of time and has a tolerance for the dust and impurities that occur in natural air. The DAC system is a promising cause for hope for reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Another type of work that CE has already made headway in is attempting to decarbonize transportation. CE advocates for the use of carbon-neutral hydrocarbons, which has a high energy density, is compatible with trillions of global infrastructure and has a low land-use footprint.

Keith’s main focus is figuring out ways to decarbonize transportation on a grander scale. He investigates strategies to translate solar energy in photovoltaic cells into storable, transportable fuel and says that solar energy is “one of the two energy sources that are practically scalable to the tens of terawatts that a carbon-neutral high energy society would want without major energy footprints.” The price for solar energy has gone down significantly in the past decade or so, now only costing under $0.30 per watt. The challenge is that sunlight is only abundant during the day, and solar energy is not easily transportable.

The solution lies in a process that takes solar energy, uses DAC, and incorporates hydro electrolysis. Electrolyzing carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide is the next step, and finally, the process would involve liquidizing those gasses to make fuel. The process is an alternative to electric energy for transportation, and because electric energy is not the most practical for long distances, this innovation could very well prevail as a clean fuel source with greater mileage than electric batteries. This fuel is essentially powered by solar energy; it is a monumental and historic act to power buses, cars, and potentially other forms of transportation with energy from the sun.

Ultimately, Keith claims that we must push to have decarbonization, carbon removal, solar geoengineering, and adaptation, but the controversy remains over how to prioritize and implement those four aspects of carbon management in the environment.

Earth via Wikimedia Commons