A solar-powered and tent-sized Australian prototype machine that can suck CO2 from the air has secured a $700,000 contract to capture and store carbon.
The deal, part of a project backed by corporates including the owners of Google and Facebook, is thought to be the first time an Australian company has secured a deal to remove CO2 using direct air capture (DAC) technology.
AspiraDAC will deploy about 180 of the machines, developed and made in Australia, to capture and store 500 tonnes of CO2 by 2027 at an agreed US$1,000 (AU$1,469) a tonne.
In April several major corporates, including the owners of Facebook and Google, announced a new venture called Frontier that would commit US$925m (AU$1,359) to projects that pull CO2 from the air and then store it.
In the first major purchase under the venture, technology company Stripe, one of the partners in Frontier, announced this week it was spending US$2.4m (AU$3.5m) on six direct air capture projects around the world, including AspiraDAC.
The executive director of AspiraDAC, Julian Turecek, said up to 180 modules would be needed to fulfil the contract and these would cover an area of less than half a hectare.
He said the company had not confirmed the location or the geological storage for the site, but confirmed depleted oil and gas reservoirs at Moomba, in South Australia, were being considered.
“We really think this is a launch moment for direct air capture in Australia,” Turecek said. “This is the start of what could be a significant industry.”
He said the carbon removal off-take agreement with Frontier was likely to be the first of several that AspiraDAC would deliver.
Southern Green Gas has developed the machines in partnership with the University of Sydney, and will build and deliver them to AspiraDAC.
The business development manager and co-founder at Southern Green Gas, Brett Cooper, believed the contract to deliver the emissions reductions using DAC was a first in Australia. Each module can capture two tonnes of CO2 a year.
Cooper said: “This is a quintessential Australian solution because not everyone has the land area that also has the intensity of solar energy that we have.”
The amount of CO2 reduction under the new contract is tiny, but Cooper said the deal is a major step for the industry which he believes has big growth potential in Australia.
At the core of the Australian machine is a sponge-like material developed at the University of Sydney that holds on to CO2 molecules as air passes through it.
Fans draw air into canisters containing the sponges, and then heat is used to extract the pure CO2 that can be pumped and stored underground. All power comes from the solar panels that cover the units like an A-frame tent.
The Sydney team of scientists and student researchers won a $250,000 prize last year to support the development of the material from tech billionaire Elon Musk’s US$100m (AU$147m) X-Prize that is trying to establish large-scale carbon removal projects.
Prof Deanna D’Alessandro, who supervises the Sydney team, said: “Carbon drawdown is going to be absolutely essential. This is directly addressing the problem and that is really powerful.”
“The students are seeing the materials they’re making having a real-world impact on carbon drawdown.”
Turecek said: “Nature has designed the perfect air capture machine and that’s a tree. But DAC is doing that mechanically and once we can do that at scale we can control that CO2 removal and make it permanent.”
An International Energy Agency plan for the world’s economies to reach net zero emissions by 2050 says direct air capture technologies will need to deliver more than 85m tonnes of CO2 capture by 2030. Currently, the agency says the technology can deliver just 10,000 tonnes around the world.
In May, the US government announced a US$3.5bn program to build four major hubs for direct air capture projects.
The world’s biggest direct air capture plant is in Iceland and the company behind the plant, Climeworks, announced this week it was expanding capacity to 36,000 tonnes of CO2 a year.
Dr Paul Feron, a scientist working on carbon capture technologies at CSIRO, said the agency was working on three different DAC technologies that he hoped would be commercialised within a decade.
“We have got to the point in terms of the CO2 levels in the atmosphere that we need to have an ‘all of the above’ approach,” he said.
“We need to be good at using as little energy as we can and we need to replace our fossil fuels with renewable energy as quickly as we can. But that most likely won’t be enough and we need to manage the carbon that is already delivering climate change. That’s why there is enormous interest in DAC.
“We need to plant as many trees as we can, but it’s a reflection on the severity of the problem that we now have to look at [DAC] as well.”