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Interest in Geoengineering Grows, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Geoengineering may sound like science fiction to some, but it is attracting brilliant minds and serious money.  For example, a firm called Intellectual Ventures, co-founded by Microsoft’s Bill Gates, is sponsoring geoengineering research.  This unique branch of technology is generally focused on using man’s ingenuity to improve the climate in general, specific weather conditions or air quality on a grand scale.  To a large degree, such research is focused on using new practices to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.
Over recent years, scientists and engineers have proposed several potential methods for reducing the greenhouse gas effect, cooling the Earth’s temperature, increasing rainfall, decreasing hurricanes or otherwise reengineering the planet.  For example, many methods of deflecting solar rays from the Earth, and thus reducing the Earth’s temperature, have been proposed.  Suggested methods include sending light-reflecting particles of various types or a vast mist of seawater into the upper atmosphere, reflecting sunlight away before it has an opportunity to cause heat on the ground below.
Much of today’s well-funded geoengineering research is focused on capturing CO2 from the air, regardless of whether that CO2 was the result of industrial processes, electric power generation or transportation.  This is serious business for many reasons.
CO2 has real value of its own, as it is commonly used in a wide variety of industrial and energy applications.  For example, injecting CO2 into an oil well is a widely accepted method for enhancing recovery of oil reserves.  Recently, several startups have been founded that focus on feeding CO2 to algae as a nutrient.  The algae produce a natural oil in abundance that can be refined into fuel for transportation.  CO2 is also used to make sodas (carbonated drinks) bubble.
One of the leading firms in this effort is a Canadian company, Carbon Engineering, Ltd. (CE) (  Its focus is on cost effective, industrial scale, air-capture technologies, including in-house engineering, laboratory work, and pilot research in tandem with outsourced design and testing performed by engineering firms and vendors.  The firm’s test plant, about 40 miles north of Vancouver, uses a powerful fan to distribute air across plastic sheets that have been soaked with lye.  The sheets capture carbon dioxide for processing.
CE has an in-house group of full-time engineers, chemists, and physicists.  The team is boosted by a handful of part-time senior engineers with expertise in areas of particular importance to CE who are retained on long-term consulting contracts.  All of CE’s R&D activities are undertaken in partnership with leading engineering firms and equipment vendors, and with industrial or academic consultants.  CE is funded by angel investors including Bill Gates and N. Murray Edwards, a wealthy oil and gas man.  CE grew from academic work conducted on carbon management technologies by Professor David Keith’s research groups at the University of Calgary and Carnegie Mellon University.  More recently, Dr. Keith joined the school of Engineering and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where he is studying the potential of scattering small amounts of sulfur into the Earth’s upper atmosphere to deflect heat.
Today’s pioneers in carbon air capture are relying on various uses of sorbents that naturally absorb CO2.  Their goal is to repurpose that CO2 as something useful and hopefully lucrative.  For some technologies, such as those offered by Global Thermostat, a carbon air capture facility might be located near a coal-burning electric generating plant.  Other technologies are less location-dependent for the capture process.  However, all of the competing technologies would be most efficient if they were near some sort of facility with high demand for CO2.  In other words, they might best be sited in an older oil field where injection of huge amounts of CO2 into wells would increase production.  Likewise, they would do well sited near one of the algae-to-fuel plants that depend on CO2 to feed the algae.  A leading pioneer in this oil-growing algae field is a firm called Synthetic Genomics, founded by biotech innovator J. Craig Venter, and backed with hundreds of millions of dollars from ExxonMobil.  The firm is also partnering with Global Thermostat to evaluate potential scalability of carbon air capture and study applications that could extend across multiple industrial sectors.
Dutch geochemist Olaf Schuiling of the University of Utrecht is studying an abundant green-tinted mineral called olivine, which, when exposed to the elements, slowly absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere.  Schuiling contends that spreading crushed olivine throughout as much of the Earth as possible (think fields, beaches, pathways, bridges) would retard global warming.

Companies Active in Geoengineering for CO2 Capture:

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