Harvard Professor Designing Air-Capture Plant

Professor David W. Keith is working furiously to beat the winter weather. His company, Carbon Engineering, is designing a device to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by air capture, and the prototype wasn’t built to withstand the winter cold.

The team is currently testing a device called a contactor, a central element to the machine that collects carbon dioxide, at the University of Calgary.

Keith, a professor of applied physics at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences as well as a professor of public policy at the Kennedy School, said work has fallen behind schedule. But the group remains optimistic about its innovation’s potential to manage carbon buildup in the atmosphere.

Carbon Engineering’s goal is to have a commercially viable technology by 2016. A typical plant would capture one million tons of carbon dioxide per year—the equivalent of taking about 300,000 cars off the road, according to the company’s website.

Keith’s machine involves capturing air and holding it inside the contactor, where a chemical solution absorbs carbon dioxide. The machine then creates pure carbon dioxide, which can then be put to productive use.

Carbon Engineering is not the first to build a machine to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but Keith’s group is working on a larger scale, he said. Keith—who was named a Hero of the Environment by Time Magazine in 2009—also said that his group was focused from the beginning on the economic viability of its technology.

“There were commercial air-capture devices in the 1950s and 1960s so the basic feasibility of doing this commercially was already established,” Keith said. “We are different because we are trying to think of how to do this in a way that is really cheap.”

Keith said that despite growth in the industry, many are still skeptical of the technology.

“There is a great deal of resistance to the idea that it could be useful to do this,” Keith said. “One of the biggest challenges for Carbon Engineering is getting over this hump. We do believe that there is something real here and we have lots of engineering to show it.”

The ideas behind Carbon Engineering can be traced back to Keith’s work at Carnegie Mellon.

His initial academic analysis eventually led to practical research in the field, he said. When Keith moved to the University of Calgary—where he serves as an adjunct professor—he found the group of individuals who would eventual compose the founding members of Carbon Engineering. Keith created the company in 2009 with funding from prominent individuals, including Bill Gates.

Keith said he is now eager to complete testing and proceed with building the world’s first air capture plant.

“I think it is really important to get this thing out in the real world because only when you do that can you really get a sense of what it will cost and how useful it will be,” he said.