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Adnoc and Occidental team up to capture carbon dioxide

The Gulf has ideal conditions for the vital new technology of direct air capture

Adnoc DAC Climeworks
The Climeworks Orca plant in Iceland removes around 4,000 tonnes of CO2 annually from the atmosphere. Much bigger plants are now being constructed around the world

A critical new climate technology is taking shape near hot springs in Iceland, in a field near Zurich and across acres of scrubland in Texas. 

The US Department of Energy has just announced it will invest $1.2 billion in two projects to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, turning back the clock on climate change. 

And via a partnership between US petroleum company Occidental and oil major Adnoc, the critical technology known as direct air capture (DAC) could be coming to Abu Dhabi.

We have put much too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and continue to emit it at unsustainable rates. Even with maximum use of renewable energy, electric vehicles, nuclear power, greater efficiency and every other climate-friendly technology, we need to undo the legacy.

There are various ways – biological, mineralogical, oceanic and mechanical – to achieve carbon dioxide removal.

One emerging method uses machines with chemical solvents or adsorbents which separate out the 418 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 from nitrogen, oxygen and other gases. 

The captured carbon dioxide is then safely and permanently disposed of deep underground, or used to make other products, including cements, fuels or plastics.

It is therefore a special case of carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS), which is usually fitted to a large emitting facility such as a power plant or industrial installation burning coal, oil or gas.

DAC is a nascent technology. The Orca plant in Iceland removes about 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually from the atmosphere – compared to almost 37 billion tonnes of worldwide emissions of the climate-changing gas annually.

The two projects backed by the US Department of Energy will capture about 1 million tonnes each per year.

Adnoc DACClimeworks
An artists’s impression of Climeworks’ new Mammoth DAC plant, currently under construction in Iceland

The International Energy Agency estimates that, to meet net-zero carbon targets, DAC will have to remove about 85 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2030, scaling up to 980 million tonnes in 2050.

The individual machines can be small, often designed to fit in a standard shipping container, but millions will be required ultimately – similarly to solar panels or wind turbines.

Is DAC currently too small to make a difference? Yes – and that’s why it needs to expand rapidly. Is it unproven or risky? Not really – separating carbon dioxide from air has been done for over a century.

The task is to do it at reasonable cost, efficiently and on a massive scale.

Should we plant trees to capture carbon dioxide? Yes, we should. But there is not enough free land around the world to offset emissions. And, as we have unfortunately seen around the US and Mediterranean in the last few months, trees easily burn down.

Is DAC too expensive? The question is: compared to what? Costs today are perhaps around $400-500 per tonne of carbon dioxide, but there are reasonable plans to get that under $200, and the US Department of Energy targets $100 by 2030, probably ambitious for that timescale.

For mopping up a small amount of unavoidable residual emissions and capturing historic emissions, it is the only option. And costs of $100-200 per tonne are manageable – carbon permits in Europe already sell for around $100 per tonne.

DAC has been given momentum by advance purchases by companies such as Microsoft and payments company Stripe, which are seeking to zero-out their present and even past carbon footprints. The US’s recent Inflation Reduction Act offers tax credits of $180 per tonne of carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere, a huge step forward.

In July, Shell decided to move ahead with an industrial-scale DAC plant in Texas. Occidental broke ground on its first DAC plant in West Texas in May. The two projects receiving the US Department of Energy money are by Occidental’s subsidiary 1PointFive in Kleberg County, south Texas, and Project Cypress, being built by a consortium in Louisiana.

Occidental DAC1PointFive
An artist’s impression of one of Occidental subsidiary 1PointFive’s planned DAC plants in the US

Occidental has a long history in the Middle East, and is an important partner for Adnoc in Abu Dhabi. Chief executive Vicki Hollub has a vision for Occidental to move beyond oil and gas and also to become a carbon management company – a new breed of business.

Oxy’s chemical division happens to be one of the biggest manufacturers of potassium hydroxide, the critical absorbent used by its technology provider Carbon Engineering.

The UAE’s latest climate communication to the UN states it will explore DAC pilots by 2030. The Gulf has ideal conditions for DAC – lots of open land, ample and cheap solar power to run the machines, and large, well-known underground geological structures for storage. 

On August 1, Occidental and Adnoc agreed to work together on DAC both in the US and UAE.

Adnoc also has an active carbon capture programme, which includes a pilot in Fujairah to react carbon dioxide with rocks to trap it permanently in solid minerals.

That could be a safe resting place for atmospheric CO2 – mimicking Earth’s natural thermostat which restores the carbon cycle over millennia.

The Gulf, which has benefited so much from the export of fossil fuels over the past 90 years, can now safeguard its own future by putting carbon back underground.

Robin M. Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

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