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A continuously operating, semiautonomous performance pilot plant for direct air carbon capture, built by Global Thermostat, on April 4, 2023, in Brighton. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

A fan-driven carbon sponge billed as North America’s largest carbon capture facility was unveiled Tuesday, with a potential global solution to climate warming arriving in a nondescript Brighton warehouse district. 

The shed-size machine draws carbon dioxide out of ambient air for reuse in industrial products or sequestration in underground caverns, a technology that could be replicated thousands of times around the globe to combat the buildup of CO2 from a century of burning fossil fuels. 

“This machine is just one step on that journey,” Global Thermostat head of market development, policy and engagement Nicholas Eisenberger said in an interview before a VIP-heavy unveiling. “We have to remove billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere over the coming decades, but this is an important milestone for us and the industry. To our knowledge, this is one of the largest direct air capture operating plants ever launched in the world, and is the largest operating plant here in the United States.”

Former U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Jared Polis, Global Thermostat Executive Chairman Edgar Bronfman Jr. and others were expected on hand for the unveiling of Global Thermostat’s technology. The machinery has been up and running in Brighton for a few months. The carbon captured at the Brighton location is currently vented back to the atmosphere, while the company perfects the technology and seeks a local partner to use or sequester what is absorbed there. 

Global Thermostat has received U.S. Department of Energy grants to continue development. The company was founded in 2010 and is now headquartered in Adams County.

Here are some of the key questions and answers about carbon capture technology and its impact on the global warming discussion in coming years: 

How does the piece of machinery in Brighton capture carbon, and how is it different?

Global Thermostat’s system is called “direct air capture,” of carbon. Other carbon capture pilots are usually attached to remove carbon from one source, such as a cement kiln or an ethanol plant, then the carbon is piped to an underground cavern formation and sequestered there indefinitely. 

Direct air capture takes on carbon from ambient air that disperses equally around the globe. That means carbon capture machinery can be placed anywhere on the planet that is economical to build. Global Thermostat’s system uses large fans to force carbon-laden air over material prepared with carbon-absorbing chemicals, as a form of sponge. 

Why do people want to capture carbon? 

In order to keep global warming under a scientific consensus of 1.5 degrees Celsius in order to avoid climate catastrophe, some researchers hold that ramping down fossil fuel use is not enough. Excess carbon dioxide that is causing global warming must be removed from the atmosphere in order to make a big enough impact on rising temperatures, they say. 

What happens to the carbon once it’s been absorbed in the sponge-like material? 

The absorbent material is sent through other chemical processes that remove and purify the carbon. That resulting pure carbon can be used as an industrial chemical, such as for the carbonating additive in soft drinks or as feedstock for plastics and other industrial goods. Or it can be piped to underground storage for permanent sequestration.

A direct air carbon capture unit at Global Thermostat, capable of gathering a kiloton of carbon, on April 4, 2023, in Brighton. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

What is the economic model for private companies to do carbon removal? 

Companies may pay Global Thermostat and other pilot projects for the carbon as a useful industrial material. Or companies looking to offset carbon from fossil fuel burning, such as aviation companies or any corporation looking to become carbon neutral, may buy Global Thermostat’s credits for every ton of carbon sequestered underground. 

How do carbon credits work? 

Governments offer tax credits for each ton of carbon removed from the atmosphere or an industrial process. The Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress more than tripled tax credits for carbon capture to $180 a ton, plus $130 a ton when the carbon is used and locked up in other products, Global Thermostat said. 

Global Thermostat wants to sell its capture machines to developers who can take advantage of the tax credits to make a profit, or to companies that want to capture carbon onsite and use the material in an industrial process. 

What is happening to the carbon Global Thermostat captures in Brighton? 

Currently the carbon is vented back into the atmosphere. The company is looking for a local company who wants the carbon for an industrial use or can partner to build a pipeline to a sequestration site, Eisenberger said. Global Thermostat is working on multiple projects but has now concentrated its research and development for direct air capture in Brighton. 

The concept in theory is very simple, Eisneberger said: “You take a high-surface-area sponge and you put it in a puddle of water. It sucks up the water. You squeeze it over the sink and then you go back to your puddle.” Substitute carbon for the water, and that’s Global Thermostat, he said. 

Global Thermostat official Nicholas Eisenberger talks about direct air carbon capture technology at an unveiling in Brighton, April 4, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Is there disagreement about pursuing carbon capture on a large scale?

Some environmental groups and researchers call carbon capture the equivalent of a moral hazard, or a solution that ends up encouraging the original culprits to continue dangerous activity. In the case of carbon, the critique is that stuffing carbon underground as a solution to rising CO2 and global warming will make it easier to keep burning fossil fuels. The only real solution, these critics argue, is to immediately stop using fossil fuels. 

They also contend that producing the machinery for large-scale carbon capture is itself an intense industrial process when the world is not yet running fully on renewable energy. There are also questions about whether long-term underground storage of carbon is realistic or safe. 

“The only reason to continue subsidizing carbon capture schemes is to please and enrich the fossil fuel industry,” Food & Water Watch has said. “Decades of experience show carbon capture is not a viable technology to address the climate crisis and there is no reason to continue subsidizing new failures.”

Global Thermostat acknowledges the debate, but officials say they believe there’s a consensus that carbon removal from the atmosphere is the only way to meet climate goals. 

“And direct air capture is one of the portfolio solutions for doing that,” Eisenberger said. “I do agree that the way that is done, the way that is measured and verified, needs to be fully transparent and credible to the broad range of audiences who have a stake in that, which is basically everyone.”

Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit heavily involved in policy and law on air and water issues, sees carbon capture as a question of balance, not absolutes, said Stacy Tellinghuisen, deputy director of policy development. 

Direct carbon capture may indeed be necessary as part of keeping the Earth below 1.5 to 2C degrees of warming, she said. But carbon capture and sequestration solutions so far are expensive, and could take resources away from proven decarbonization practices such as switching to renewable energy sources and making energy use more efficient, Tellinghuisen said. 

For now, the best use of carbon capture and storage is likely to be at “stubborn” sources of carbon, such as cement plants whose high heat needs make it hard to switch to clean electricity. 

The capture technology, Tellinghuisen said, “should be deployed in the right sectors. And in the right places.” 

This story was updated late on April 4, 2023, with additional interviews.

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Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver