It typically takes between 20 and 40 years for “hard technologies” (as opposed to software) to progress from laboratory discovery to widespread commercialization. This applies especially to new energy technologies such as solar, wind and nuclear. The International Energy Agency has estimated that almost half of the technologies we will need to reach net zero by 2050 are not yet commercial; they are either at the laboratory, prototype or demonstration stage of development.
But we don’t have decades to develop the next generation of climate technologies. The effects of climate change are accelerating and 2023 is the hottest year on record. We need to fundamentally overhaul our global economy now. This includes developing carbon dioxide removal technologies that remove carbon from the air and oceans to bring our atmosphere back into balance. This is the work I lead at Deep Sky, a Canadian carbon removal project developer focused on building the infrastructure to reverse climate change.
Forward-thinking companies such as Microsoft, Amazon and JP Morgan Chase have pre-purchased CDR credits to help achieve their net-zero goals. An analysis by the Boston Consulting Group recently found that the total addressable market for high-quality CDR credits could be $10-40 billion by 2030, representing an annual demand of 40-200 million tonnes of CO2 removed. The race is on for new technology companies to come to market with new ways to capture CO2 from the air and sea. CDR company Heirloom, which extracts CO2 from the air using limestone, recently opened the first commercial direct air capture facility in the United States.
Basically, the CDR process is a chemical engineering process – separating a gas from other gases or water in very dilute concentrations. This is not fusion, nor is it rocket science. We’ve known how to efficiently move liquids and gases in pipelines for a century. Unfortunately, when these liquids and gases are burned, they release huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. To reverse the effects of the oil and gas sector, we need to do what they do – but better, faster, with less energy intensity and vice versa.
Fortunately, we now have models and examples of rapid scale-up to draw on. Principles taken from software and applied to hardware can help speed development (e.g. minimum viable products). We have seen the rapid development of electric vehicles and commercial rockets with Tesla and SpaceX, and humanity has rapidly scaled a whole new class of vaccines (mRNA) in eight months to fight the COVID19 pandemic. When we fundamentally rethink a process, question efficiency and quickly identify bottlenecks, we can focus our efforts on the most important tasks.
The urgency of climate change requires us to solve for speed (while never compromising on safety). Traditional design and engineering in the hardtech area often settles for perfection, for over-design and strict stage-gated processes. To accelerate the adoption of CDR, we should fail as soon as possible so that we can learn as quickly as possible. We should parallelize as much as we can with one goal in mind: to get as much CO2 out of the atmosphere and stored underground as quickly as possible, with as little energy as possible.
Taking a first-principles approach is critical to accelerating the development of this nascent industry. Inspired by the 5-step design process for scaling technology used by Tesla and SpaceX, here are five steps that engineers and technology developers can take when building CDR technologies:
- See the requirements again. Start by re-evaluating all initial requirements, both technical and non-technical. Be critical of assumptions made by respected scientists, engineers or project managers, especially those from established industries such as oil and gas. Examine the core purpose of each element of the CDR process design, technology and project. Regularly ask questions like “Why does this have to be here?” “Can we achieve our goals without it?” and “Is this a perceived necessity or an actual necessity?” Often demands were made for a different time, different technology and different context. This is especially true when navigating permitting and bureaucratic processes.
- Remove non-essential items. Consider removing parts of the process or physical components that are not strictly necessary. This is particularly crucial in large-scale projects such as CDR plants, where both capital and operating costs can be high. Remember, if you don’t occasionally realize that something can be removed, you probably aren’t considering the process critically enough. Every piece of equipment, every procedure and every rule should be accountable to someone who can justify its existence. “Because that’s how it’s always been done” is not a valid reason when innovating into a new sector.
- Simplify and optimize. Once you’ve removed everything that isn’t needed, turn your attention to the remaining elements and optimize them. Be careful not to over-engineer solutions to problems that could be solved more simply, or optimize parts of the system that are not bottlenecks. For example, there is little point in designing an ultra-efficient CO2 air contactor if the bottleneck is in the renewable energy supply. The systems approach is essential; you must look at the project holistically.
- Increase deployment speed. Once you’ve simplified and optimized, try to reduce the cycle time for discovery and experimentation. Whether this means accelerating the construction of CDR facilities, the deployment of carbon sequestration techniques (e.g. in-situ, ex-situ, deep saline, shallow surface), the use of various monitoring, reporting and verification protocols ( MRV), or the approval process for new locations, faster is usually better. But be careful about rushing in the wrong direction; ensure that each acceleration aligns with the project’s overall goals. Always anchor on the question: “does this help me capture more CO2 and store it faster and with less energy?”
- Automate when you’re ready. Automation is a critical step for scaling direct air and ocean capture facilities and carbon removal projects, but it should not be rushed. The automation of sub-optimal processes or unnecessary components will only lead to waste and can hinder the scalability of your project. If you’ve followed the previous steps, the areas of your project that are ripe for automation should be clear. Whether it’s the collection process itself, data collection and analysis, or maintenance tasks, automation can bring both efficiency and scalability.
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