DAC may be taking off but it needs more investment if it’s ever going to really fly

By Dustin Pool, Chief Commercial Officer at Origen

In summer 2022, Airbus and several major airlines including Air Canada, easyJet, Lufthansa Group and Virgin Atlantic – agreed to explore opportunities for a “future supply of carbon removal credits from direct air carbon capture technology.” 

In essence, the announcement hinges on the fact that the aviation industry cannot currently capture CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere at source when aircraft are mid-air.

Instead, it’s proposed that a ground-based direct air carbon capture and storage solution would allow airlines to extract the equivalent amount of emissions generated by their aircraft. 

Once removed from the atmosphere, the CO2 would be stored permanently – most likely underground. 

For me, this announcement is yet another interesting development in carbon dioxide removal (CDR) in response to the clear and unequivocal lead by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in stating that carbon removal is essential for us to reach net zero. 

It would supplement other solutions the aviation industry is looking at, such as sustainable aviation fuels and short-haul electric planes, as part of this global imperative.

It also shows that the message — and proposed solutions — around direct air capture (DAC) is spreading and becoming increasingly mainstream.

The Origen story is taking off

For us at Origen, we’re harnessing a natural earth process — facilitated by our own technology — to loop calcium carbonate to calcium oxide to capture CO2. Working alongside our partners, 8 Rivers, we’re working to develop a demo plant in the UK to use our zero-carbon lime in a process that would start with a target of 1,000 tonnes net CDR. 

The next phase would be to set our sights on 100,000 tonnes of net removal. 

Some people may say that’s ambitious. We don’t think so. The more zero-carbon lime we produce, the more it can be used to soak up CO2 from the atmosphere. That isn’t ambitious. That’s exciting. And it’s what motivates us as individuals — and as a company — to continue forging ahead, through the development stages before a full-scale commercial roll-out.

Funding and financial incentives are vital to DAC progress

Indeed, our work was given another boost only recently when the UK Government named ZerCaL250 — a collaboration using Origen’s zero-carbon tech and Singleton Birch’s lime production know-how — as one of 13 projects shortlisted nationally for the second phase of its Carbon Capture, Usage, and Storage (CCUS) cluster process.

As Origen CEO Ben Turner said at the time: “Thanks to our zero-carbon lime technology — and collaboration with forward-looking Singleton Birch — we are developing a way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Once we capture CO2 from the lime production process, this CO2 can be stored permanently, and the resulting lime utilised to remove CO2 from the atmosphere in a continuous loop.”

Again, it is yet another milestone in our DAC journey. But it is still early days. If we — along with the scores of other projects and approaches currently being developed — are to succeed, then the nascent CDR industry needs more funding. 

Climate funds like Stripe’s Frontier — which purchases CO2 offtake in the form of advance market commitments for CO2 removed in future — are clearly stand-out beacons in this area. Origen having recently been selected for this funding serves as positive recognition of the work we’re doing, as well as an important investment. 

Different policy approaches can have an impact on outcomes 

The recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in the US is also a game changer. The 45Q changes to tax credits — increasing the credit values to $180 tonne of CO2 captured and stored for DAC – should provide sufficient financial incentive to companies looking to invest. 

The Inflation Reduction Act is important for several reasons, not least in the approach the US takes to this issue compared with the UK and Europe. 

In Europe, the prevailing wind is very much, “if you don’t decarbonise, we’re going to tax you.” Whereas in the US, the approach is “we won’t tax you if you don’t, but we’ll give you an incentive and boost your profitability if you do.” 

Get it right, and we have the potential for a new trillion-dollar industry

It’s a key differentiator between how net zero policy is approached on either side of the Atlantic. And from what I can see, the incentives proposed in the IR Act in the US could be transformational in making carbon removal mainstream, allowing us to tackle the challenge of climate change head-on. 

Despite these much-publicised cash injections — as well as the new developments as trailed by the airline industry — there is still not enough money being raised to finance DAC projects. The know-how is there. It just needs the funding to make it happen. 

After all, if we’re to hit the target set out by the IPCC we have to go from zero carbon removed today to tens of billions removed in the 2030s. By then, DAC will be a trillion-dollar industry that permanently reverses the impact of more than a century of unfettered industrialisation. That’s our mission at Origen. It’s what drives us every single day. For us, decarbonising the planet isn’t about some nebulous blue sky thinking. 

We’re actually doing something about it. We’re working towards making it happen. We’re blue sky doing.

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