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Net zero – and then what? Why simply reducing emissions is not enough - Interview with Jörg Spitzner, DACMa GmbH

Net zero – and then what?
EEHH GmbH/Jörg Böthling

Be it cities, countries or companies – most need to or aim to be climate-neutral by 2040, 2045 or 2050 at the latest. Everyone agrees that a massive expansion in renewable energies and a reduction in CO2 emissions are crucial for this. But one thing has not yet been resolved: what happens to the emitted CO2 that is already heating our atmosphere and will continue to increase until then?

REH: Mr Spitzner, why is it important that we start storing atmospheric CO2 now?

Jörg Spitzner: "The sooner we start removing CO2 from the atmosphere, the better. So far, the focus has been on the transition to a CO2-neutral economy by expanding renewable energies and sector coupling. While the public debate surrounding Direct Air Capture (DAC) is only just beginning, without CCS, the climate targets of the German and international governments cannot be met."

REH: How does DAC differ from Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)?

Jörg Spitzner: "With DAC, CO2 is filtered out of the ambient air. This is an energy-intensive process, as the concentration of the gas in the air is low, at 0.04 percent. This is the first step. To sustainably remove CO2 from the cycle, the gas is mineralised during subsequent CCS, e.g. pressed with water to make basalt and permanently stored underground. The industry behind it is still in its infancy, which explains why this process is still at an experimental stage. CCS per se is not new, however – in the past, it was used in the oil industry to increase yields. The safety of this type of CCS, which involves CO2 being pressed into the earth in gaseous form, is highly questionable in terms of permanent storage. There are currently a number of pilot plants worldwide that permanently store CO2, thereby completely removing it from the cycle. Lots of technology is still being developed – these are all initial steps."

REH: What is the current status of the technical opportunities with DAC?

Jörg Spitzner: "The technology is basically known, with various technological approaches depending on the user. However, there are only a handful of firms around the world that offer DAC technologies. The scaling required to achieve the Paris climate targets is still difficult, however, because politicians are as yet unaware of the need for DAC. Maintaining security of supply is currently a higher priority."

REH: What is done with the CO2? Where can it be stored and/or how can it be used in an eco-friendly manner?

Jörg Spitzner: "There are two ways of recycling pure CO2 in gaseous form: in the first of these, CO2 is retained in the cycle by means of DAC. It can be used in the food and beverage industry, for example, but is more attractive for the production of synthetic fuels. This is called Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU). By synthesising CO2 with hydrogen using the Fischer-Tropsch process, jet fuel can be produced, for example. As already mentioned, however, this merely converts the carbon – it remains in the cycle and ensures climate-neutral mobility at least. In the case of CCS, mineralised CO2 is removed from the cycle completely. Certificates can then be issued for this, which are already extremely valuable today. This already forms a business case."

REH: How could this work on a large scale, i.e. internationally?

Jörg Spitzner: "During this decade, this DAC business will be further industrialised, because the pressure resulting from ongoing climate change is enormous. The International Energy Agency (IEA) envisages that 1.6 gigatons of CO2 will be removed from the atmosphere by as early as 2030. This is the equivalent of what six million BLANCAIR containers can do in a year. From 2050, this figure will be approx. eight gigatons per year, including 4.5 by DAC. In 300 to 500 years, forests might be able to stabilise the climate on their own. But we cannot wait that long. There are currently 18 Direct Air Capture plants operating worldwide, capturing almost 0.01 Mt CO2/year, and a 1 Mt CO2/year capture plant is in advanced development in the United States. In the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, Direct Air Capture is scaled up to capture almost 60 Mt CO2/year by 2030. This level of deployment is within reach, but will require several more large-scale demonstration plants to refine the technology and reduce capture costs.”

REH: Can CO2 be removed from the atmosphere everywhere or are some locations more suitable than others?

Jörg Spitzner: "CO2 is evenly distributed in the atmosphere, which gives us an advantage: we operate where energy is cheap and renewable energy is available.
We don’t yet know in which regions CCS works best: this will only be decided in future, because we don’t yet know exactly which processes work better in warm or cold climates, for example."

REH: The key word here is natural CCS: in your opinion, how big a problem are greenhouse gases previously stored in permafrost soils, forests, moorland and seagrass beds, for example, and hydrocarbons on the seabed of continental shelves that are increasingly escaping? Could we have already passed the point of no return?

Jörg Spitzner: "It’s debatable as to when we could reach the tipping point. The acidification of the oceans by more diluted CO2 not only means that vast numbers of microorganisms are dying, but also affects marine currents and threatens the Gulf Stream, for example. Polar melting is already unstoppable. We need to understand this complex process and continue to develop DAC technology. It plays a crucial role in tackling climate change."

REH: You’re already working as a pioneer on your own product. What is the technical principle?

Jörg Spitzner: "The BLANCAIR reactor looks a bit like an engine that sucks air through a filter. The adsorber chemically binds the CO2. In the case of desorption, we heat the adsorber and the CO2 is removed from the filter again in a vacuum. One cycle takes around an hour. The filters can be reversed without significant aging. The resulting CO2 gas can be used for industrial processes or for storage."

REH: How technically developed is it?

Jörg Spitzner: "We’re currently making the first series-production prototype that will be tested in mid-2023 and be delivered to Brazil for a joint CCS project at the end of the year."

REH: Which customers/markets are you targeting?

Jörg Spitzner: "We will be starting with research institutes in cooperation with a European petroleum company that deals with synthetic fuel production and CCS. We are already receiving a lot of requests, but cannot deliver yet, as we are still a start-up. We are receiving individual inquiries for up to 1,700 BLANCAIR containers."

REH: What is your timeframe?

Jörg Spitzner: "The prototype testing phase will last six months, with the first mass-produced container to be delivered in mid-2024. Some of our competitors already offer commercial solutions, but in view of the overall task and young market, there is no direct competition. Instead, we need all the appropriate technological approaches we can find in the fight against climate change!"





About Oliver Schenk

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I’m responsible for hydrogen marketing and therefore ensure that local projects and events are recognised in the Hamburg metropolitan area and beyond. To help this promising energy source achieve a breakthrough, I support the hydrogen economy with editorial articles, network events, video productions and much more.