Trees have been doing it for about 370 million years. But a new Canadian start-up business has stolen Mother Nature’s idea by creating a technology that can quite literally suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

The captured CO2 can then either be discarded safely, or converted into fuel which could power cars, planes and other vehicles.

Calgary, Canada, based company Carbon Engineering (CE) is building the technology which, it believes, will extract millions of tonnes of CO2 from the air to help mitigate climate change.

According to CE, the captured carbon dioxide from ambient air (where it exists at 400ppm concentration) is then scrubbed and later provided as a pure compressed stream for storage or use. Capturing CO2 directly from the air does allow emissions originating from any source to be managed with standardised scalable industrial facilities.

A test facility has been constructed, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the technology, on an abandoned industrial site – which will capture only 500 tonnes of CO2 every year. This is barely enough to offset the emissions annually of 33 average Canadians. But a full-scale designed plant could absorb the emissions created by 300,000 typical cars. Compared to Mother Nature’s trees, per acre of land, CE’s technology can remove far more CO2 from the air and produce a stream of the gas.

The regeneration process, involving several processing steps, produces a purified stream of CO2 and re-makes the original capture chemical. These two processes work together to enable continuous capture of CO2 from atmospheric air, with energy (and small amounts of make-up chemicals) as an input, and pure CO2 as an output.

If water is split into its elements of oxygen and hydrogen, and then the hydrogen is chemically combined with the captured CO2 from the air, a diesel-hybrid fuel can be created that could power buses or be exported to California – which subsidizes low-carbon fuels.

“CE is currently in pilot demonstration phase, with a demo plant in Squamish British Columbia, under initial operations at current time,” Holmes added. “This plant will capture about one tonne of CO2 per day to demonstrate and test CE’s design.”

“CE has a number of industrial partners who provide equipment and expertise specific to various sub-systems within CE’s technology,” confirms Holmes.

Holmes explained that CE’s business plan centres on using atmospheric CO2, and renewable energy, to synthesize liquid fuels like gasoline or diesel. “This is another way - in addition to electric cars - that renewable energy could be used to power transportation, one of the toughest sectors to de-carbonize.”

CE is predominantly funded by private investors including Bill Gates. In an interview with The Financial Times, Gates mentioned his investment in CE and stated that he plans to double his personal investment in innovative green technologies to $2bn over the next five years in an attempt to “bend the curve” in the fight against climate change.

Holmes added that CE uses government grant programs when possible to leverage private investment. In reply to a question on the intended applications of CE’s technology, Holmes said that the near-term is fuel synthesis, as described. “Longer term, the technology could also be used to capture CO2 and sequester it underground, to provide a verifiable off-set to sources of emissions that are too difficult or costly to control at point of release,” he added.

There are several attractive ways in which CO2 can be captured from the atmosphere, and integrated into liquid fuel production to produce liquid hydrocarbons that are fully compatible with today’s transport infrastructure, but have a low (or even zero) carbon intensity.

CO2 from the atmosphere can be supplied for enhanced oil recovery. Once the produced oil is refined and the fuel is burned, the life-cycle carbon intensity is still less than half of today’s conventional fuels.

Atmospheric CO2 can be captured and supplied for algae growth in industrial-scale ponds. The algae can be processed and refined into bio-fuels.

CO2 from the atmosphere can be captured and directly synthesized into liquid hydrocarbons. This approach allows centralised low-carbon head and power to be used for the fuel synthesis, and supplies high energy-density liquid fuels to the transportation sector with zero net CO2 emissions.

There is a growing market demand for liquid fuels with low life-cycle carbon-intensity. California now has a low carbon fuel standard in effect, and similar initiatives are under way in other states, British Columbia, and Europe. These regulations seek to cut CO2 emissions by incentivizing transport fuels that have low life-cycle carbon intensity with premium values. Effective carbon prices of over $100/tonne-CO2 are developing in tightly regulated markets that do not allow conventional offsets such as emerging Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

Air-capture may be allowed into these markets because it is a direct physical removal of CO2 that can be accurately quantified and integrated into the fuel production chain; if permitted, these markets represent compelling market opportunities for air capture.

CE’s business strategy is to monetise the value of low-carbon fuels in constrained markets, and to combine that with commodity revenue for industrial CO2, to finance profitable air capture projects.