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What it will take to achieve affordable carbon removal

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What it will take to achieve affordable carbon removal


A pair of companies have begun designing what could become Europe’s largest direct-air-capture plant, capable of capturing as much as a million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year and burying it deep beneath the floor of the North Sea.

The sequestered climate pollution will be sold as carbon credits, reflecting the rising demand for carbon removal as a drove of nations and corporations lay out net-zero emissions plans that rely heavily, whether directly or indirectly, on using trees, machines, or other means to pull carbon dioxide out of the air.

Climate researchers say the world may need billions of tons of carbon dioxide removal annually by midcentury to address the “residual emissions” from things like aviation and agriculture that we can’t affordably clean up by then—and to pull the climate back from extremely dangerous levels of warming.

The critical and unanswered question, however, is how much direct air capture will cost—and whether companies and nations will decide they can afford it.

The facility proposed by the two companies, Carbon Engineering and Storegga Geotechnologies, will likely be located in North East Scotland, enabling it to draw on plentiful renewable energy and funnel captured carbon dioxide to nearby sites offshore, the companies said. It’s expected to come online by 2026.

“We can’t stop every [source of] emissions,” says Steve Oldham, chief executive of Carbon Engineering, which is based in British Columbia. “It’s too difficult, too expensive, and too disruptive. That’s where carbon removal comes in. We’re seeing an increasing realization that it’s going to be essential.”

Getting to $100 a ton

Oldham declines to say how much the companies plan to charge for carbon removal, and says they don’t yet know the per-ton costs they’ll achieve with the European plant.

But he is confident it will eventually reach the target cost levels for direct air capture identified in a 2018 analysis in Joule, led by Carbon Engineering founder and Harvard professor David Keith. It put the range at between $94 and $232 per ton once the technology reaches commercial scale.

Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering

COURTESY: CARBON ENGINEERING

Getting to $100 per ton is essentially the point of economic viability, as large US customers generally pay $65 to $110 for carbon dioxide used for commercial purposes, according to a little-noticed May paper by Habib Azarabadi and direct-air-capture pioneer Klaus Lackner, both at Arizona State University’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions. (The $100 doesn’t include the separate but considerably smaller cost of carbon sequestration.)

At that point, direct air capture could become a reasonably cost-effective way of addressing the 10% to 20% of emissions that will remain too difficult or expensive to eliminate—and may even compete with the cost of capturing carbon dioxide before it leaves power plants and factories, the authors state.

But the best guess is that the sector is nowhere near that level today. In 2019, the Swiss direct-air-capture company Climeworks said its costs were around $500 to $600 per ton.

What it will take to get to that $100 threshold is building a whole bunch of plants, Azarabadi and Lackner found.

Specifically, the study estimates that the direct-air-capture industry will need to grow by a factor of a little more than 300 in order to achieve costs of $100 a ton. That’s based on the “learning rates” of successful technologies, or how rapidly costs declined as their manufacturing capacity grew. Getting direct-air capture to that point may require total federal subsidies of $50 million to $2 billion, to cover the difference between the actual costs and market rates for commodity carbon dioxide.

Lackner says the key question is whether their study applied the right learning curves from successful technologies like solar—where costs dropped by roughly a factor of 10 as scale increased 1,000-fold—or if direct air capture falls into a rarer category of technologies where greater learning doesn’t rapidly drive down costs.

“A few hundred million invested in buying down the cost could tell whether this is a good or bad assumption,” he said in an email.

Dreamcatcher

The United Kingdom has set a plan to zero out its emissions by 2050 that will require millions of tons of carbon dioxide removal to balance out the emissions sources likely to still be producing pollution. The government has begun providing millions of dollars to develop a variety of technical approaches to help it hit those targets, including about $350,000 to the Carbon Engineering and Storegga effort, dubbed Project Dreamcatcher.

The plant will likely be located near the so-called Acorn project developed by Scotland-based Storegga’s subsidiary, Pale Blue Dot Energy. The plan is to produce hydrogen from natural gas extracted from the North Sea, while capturing the emissions released in the process. The project would also repurpose existing oil and gas infrastructure on the northeast tip of Scotland to transport the carbon dioxide, which would be injected into sites below the seabed.

The proposed direct-air-capture plant could leverage the same infrastructure for its carbon dioxide storage, Oldham says.

The companies initially expect to build a facility capable of capturing 500,000 tons annually but could eventually double the scale given market demand. Even the low end would far exceed the otherwise largest European facility under way, Climeworks’ Orca facility in Iceland, slated to remove 4,000 tons annually. Only a handful of other small-scale plants have been built around the world.

The expected capacity of the Scotland plant is essentially the same as that of Carbon Engineering’s other full-sized facility, planned for Texas. It will also begin as a half-million-ton-a-year plant with the potential to reach a million. Construction is likely to start on that plant early next year, and it’s expected to begin operation in 2024.

Much of the carbon dioxide captured at that facility, however, will be used for what’s known as enhanced oil recovery: the gas will be injected underground to free up additional oil from petroleum wells in the Permian Basin. If done carefully, that process could potentially produce “carbon neutral” fuels, which at least don’t add more emissions to the atmosphere than were removed.

Oldham agrees that building more plants will be the key to driving costs, noting that Carbon Engineering will see huge declines just from its first plant to its second. How sharply the curve bends from there will depend on how rapidly governments adopt carbon prices or other climate policies that create more demand for carbon removal, he adds. Such policies essentially force “hard-to-solve” sectors like aviation, cement, and steel to start paying someone to clean up their pollution.

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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes

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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes


Don Mattes started giving to the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT before he himself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since his death in 2020, his wife, Glenda, has carried forward Don’s passion for its work. “My wish is that no one ever has to go through the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease ever again,” Glenda says. The Matteses have also supported the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

Legacy sparks hope. An early key employee of Andover Controls who later ran the company’s European operations, Don visited six continents with Glenda during their 30-year marriage—often to ski or bicycle. “Don’s was a life well lived, just too short,” Glenda says. The couple made provisions in their estate plan to support the Picower Institute. After Don died, Glenda made a gift to MIT of real estate that established both endowed and current-use funds there to support research on Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Glenda is a cancer survivor, and the gift also endowed a fund in the couple’s name at the Koch Institute.

Great discoveries being made at MIT: “Don always said the best thing he got from MIT was being taught how to think,” Glenda says. “MIT is an amazing place. Picower Institute director Li-Huei Tsai and her team are doing more than looking for a treatment for Alzheimer’s. They’re looking for the root cause of the disease. I am also fascinated with the Koch’s melding of engineering and biology. The chances they are going to solve the cancer issue someday are very high.” 

Help MIT build a better world.
For more information, contact Amy Goldman: (617) 253-4082;  goldmana@mit.edu. Or visit giving.mit.edu/planned-giving.

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Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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