Skip to Content

A Reality Check for Carbon Capture

An exciting process thought to be the core of a new company still needs a lot of work.

There’s been some speculation online recently about a new company called C12 Energy that’s received $4.5 million from Sequoia Capital. The president of the company is Kurt Zenz House, who, as a PhD candidate at Harvard, worked out the details of a plan to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by speeding up natural processes. These processes could counteract global warming on their own, although they’d take a long time–about 100,000 years–to do it. (The process has kept the temperature on Earth, over its long history, within a narrow band, even as the brightness of the sun has changed significantly, he says.) House’s idea is to hurry the process along using electrolysis. He published the idea in the fall of 2007, and he’s applied for a patent on the idea.

This has led to speculation that the company, which is known to be involved in carbon dioxide sequestration, was founded to commercialize this particular technology. This is something that House will not confirm, although he continues to be excited about his work at Harvard, which he’s continuing now as a research fellow (PDF) at MIT.

But this likely isn’t what C12 Energy is up to. The process faces some large obstacles to becoming a practical way to sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide. For example, the amount of seawater that would need to be electrolytically treated would be huge–on the order of 6,000 cubic meters per second if it were to offset 15 percent of global emissions. This sort of volume is conceivable for some processes, but electrolysis is expensive. What’s more, the process would be very energy intensive and produce ozone-destroying compounds. But ultimately, the problem is that more cost-effective ways to sequester carbon dioxide already exist.

House says that these challenges could be overcome. He proposes selling by-products of the process for use in manufacturing PVC piping or cement. But David Keith, the director of the Energy and Environmental Systems Group at the University of Calgary, says that schemes relying on the sale of by-products will be hard to deploy at large scales because the markets for these products quickly become saturated.

This isn’t to say that the process doesn’t work–it does, Keith says. It’s just expensive and uses a lot of energy. “The energy cost is just deadly,” he says. There might be technical fixes to these issues, and it’s exciting that House is continuing to work on it. But for now, at least, it seems like an idea better suited to the lab than to a commercial enterprise.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.