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research led by Klaus Lackner, a physicist at Columbia University. Lackner’s work focused on carbon capture for a more conventional purpose—reducing the greenhouse emissions of coal-fired power plants that the nation relies on today for a cheap and steady supply of electricity. Eventually, with the help of Gary Comer, the billionaire co-founder of Land’s End, a company called Global Research Technologies was founded in Arizona to develop commercial applications of Lackner’s ideas with about $8 million in support, David says.
Kilimanjaro raised its first $3.5 million from Arch last July, and now has a team of seven people working on the technology from labs in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood. The company is building its first so-called “alpha prototype” this year, that’s about the size of a Honda Civic, David says. Next year, Kilimanjaro plans to build three machines that can capture 1 ton a day of carbon dioxide from the air. By 2013, Kilimanjaro plans to build bigger machines that are 75 feet in diameter, and which capture 10 tons of CO2 a day, he says. The hope is to get the machines ready for the market in 2014. If all goes according to plan, big oilfields could have hundreds of these machines capturing hundreds of tons of CO2 per day, he says.
The technology is supposed to work by using water vaporization to drive the purification process that separates CO2 from the rest of the molecules in the air. The process is only supposed to work in climates without much humidity—like Northwest Texas, Arizona, or the Great Plains.
It does take energy to build and operate the Kilimanjaro machines. And, obviously, if your object is to obtain petrochemicals, they will get burned in engines that emit carbon. The process of capturing and pumping so much carbon underground, however, should reduce the overall carbon footprint, however, by about half, David says. How much it will cost to perform this new process is still unknown.
“It’s not sustainable, it’s not green. But it’s greener than what we do today,” David says.
The bigger idea is to use much of this carbon capture potential to feed algae, which then pump out oils in a more renewable, sustainable fashion. But that effort is a few years further off in the future, and adds a couple layers of technical risk at companies like Sapphire and Kilimanjaro. The beauty of going after enhanced oil recovery in the beginning is that if it works even a little bit, there will be no problem selling the oil that comes from underground.
“There’s a screaming immediate market need with major geopolitical implications,” he says.
There are other companies attempting carbon capture from the air at industrial scales, including New York-based Global Thermostat and Calgary, Alberta-based Carbon Engineering.
While there will almost surely be environmental objections to any effort to increase the supply of fossil fuels, David says it’s not realistic to think about any other source of energy in the near-term that can really satisfy growing global demand.
Nothing is going to stop that market force of human nature, as people around the world have a desire to create a brighter economic future for their kids. David, the proud father of a two-year- old son, says he can relate. That’s a big reason why he wants to start capturing carbon in a way that will reduce emissions in the short-term, and over time, play a key supporting role in a more sustainable world powered by algae-derived biofuels.
If it works, David is betting that his son, grandkids, and humanity will live on for another 10,000 years. “Humans aspire for self-advancement,” he says. “This is the stuff of dreams.”
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