There are many reasons why news about the threat of climate change is so controversial and depressing.

Putting aside the politics of it all, one thing that makes folks so willing to believe that it’s no big deal is, frankly, how hopeless it all sounds. Climate scientists say that we may actually already be beyond the point of no return. Carbon dioxide, the by product of fossil fuel burning that is warming the planet, is the greatest threat. But, thanks to the efforts of some scientists at Carbon Engineering may have just discovered something that could save us all.

A new paper in the scientific journal Joule details how the Canadian company, partly owned by Bill Gates, has pioneered a way to turn carbon dioxide into fuel. This incredible development doesn’t just change the carbon dioxide into gasoline but can also turn the greenhouse gas into diesel or even jet fuel. To make matters even better, the process removes a metric ton of carbon dioxide from the air for less than one hundred dollars.


Ugh, Do We Really Have to Talk About Climate Change?

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Credit: Flickr, Franck Michel

Sadly, yes, we do. However, no one wants to, thanks to the interests of energy lobbyists, anti-science politicians, and a media landscape driven by making every issue into a red team versus the blue team spectacle. While some of the general populace still doubts it’s even happening, the scientific community is certain that it is. There is still debate amongst climate scientists, of course, but it’s about how badly our world will be affected by it. There is a lot of hyperbole surrounding this issue, so let’s just look at the bare bones facts.

  • Fact One: Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. That means that when it gets in our atmosphere at high levels, it traps the heat from the sun under the thin veil of gases that surrounds this planet. 
  • Fact Two: Burning fuel, from coal to gasoline to natural gas, produces large amounts of carbon dioxide. As more and more humans drive cars, heat their homes, and generate power on astronomical scales, more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. 
  • Fact Three: The polar ice caps, areas where there is permafrost, and Antarctica are all thawing, causing sea levels to rise.

How this will affect us in the decades and centuries to come is not certain, but even the best case scenarios are not exactly great. Even if every since scientist warning about climate change is wrong (they’re not), why take the risk? Earth is the only planet we’ve got.

Yes, Earth is Great, but So Are Cars, Cellphones, and Cheap Steak.

The other problem about climate change is that for us to do anything that will make a real difference would mean drastically changing our society. We’d have to stop driving, stop flying, stop taking advantage of the drastic improvements technology makes in our lives. For people in the developing world, they are just getting access to these technologies. Even things like electric cars, which reduce emissions, still require fossil fuels to power up. No one wants to give up their gadgets, nor should we. We live in an age of constant miracles. And it just so happens that technology might save us.

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One need only look at California to see a hint of what a future in which we are forced to drastically conserve would look like. Because of historic drought (arguably an effect of climate change), Californians have to ration the water they use every day. Even though the government poses steep fines for overuse, people still just don’t care. They love the planet and want to help, but not at the cost of filling their pools or taking that occasional hour long shower. It is difficult to get people to sacrifice like we’d need to in order to make a difference. This recent breakthrough, however, changes the game.

What’s So Great About Turning Carbon Dioxide into Fuel?

First of all, it’s just cool. Science is amazing, and the ability to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere has existed for some time. There were just two problems. The first was that it just trapped the gas underground. Like hiding dirty laundry under your bed, it would work for a while, but it’s not really gone. The second problem is that doing so cost so much money it would be nigh-impossible to do on a large scale. This is why environmental advocates wanted a so-called “Carbon Tax,” which would incentivize companies to do this themselves or finance the government’s efforts.

So, while turning carbon dioxide into combustible fuel is like alchemical magic, it’s all just carbon. That’s what’s in fossil fuels that makes them work, so yanking it from the gaseous form makes sense. Yet, this process was so costly that it seemed impossible to do on a large scale. Now, Carbon Engineering is able to take some limestone, hydrogen, and air and turn a metric ton of carbon dioxide into fuel for less than a hundred bucks. If this method is allowed to proliferate, the new energy frontier may not be wells in the ground or under the ocean, but the sky above our heads.

Okay, but Will This Work to Change the Energy Industry?

There is no question that the most vociferous opponents to climate change activists are companies and people whose livelihoods depend on fossil fuels. Again, putting aside moral grandstanding about the good of our species and our planet, this opposition makes sense. Everyone from veteran coal miners to billionaire executives could lose everything if we made a society-wide switch away from fossil fuels. Families separated by thousands of miles would have a more difficult time seeing each other. Even those who care deeply about the environment have a tough time giving up their cars and their smartphones.

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Credit: Pixabay

Yet, with this direct air capture technology, any smart energy company should immediately start their pivot towards implementing it. Because for as cheaply as they can drill, mine, and refine oil, natural gas, and coal, the very air around is much, well, “free-er.” Think about it, despite the man-hours and equipment costs for mining (to say nothing of the effect it has on the environment) you still have to pay for land. Mines and wells eventually dry up, and then it’s on to the next thing. With direct air capture, an industrial sized site can “mine” the air for carbon dioxide forever.


Okay, I’m Sold. When Will This Technology Be Put into Use?

As excited as we all should be about this breakthrough, we’re not out of the proverbial (dying) woods yet. Carbon Engineering is currently working on an industrial scale version of this technology. However, it won’t be ready until 2021. From there, so long as it really works as they believe it will, it will take a lot of those industrial scale facilities to make a dent in our carbon dioxide saturated atmosphere. However, this breakthrough offers a glimmer of real hope for our technological futures. 

As this technology is further developed—and maybe even cheaper, more efficient methods are discovered—the benefits will eventually be felt. Along with reducing the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, people will be able to get their fuel or power more cheaply than before. Add to this the advancements in energy efficiency in recent years and in the decades to come, and suddenly our climate future is brighter. Asking people to give up their cars and tech toys is a hard ask, even to save the world. This helps skirt that problem.

What do you think? Share your thoughts, feelings, and reactions in the comments. Also remember to share this article online to keep the conversation going. 

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