Sucking Carbon from Air: Carbon Negative Power Plants


A heartfelt comment came from a reader of my recent blog Innovation and Abuse: “How does the Global Thermostat technology work? Notice that they don’t explain how they do it -- it seems too good to be true!”

I sympathize with the comment, which is fitting for my blog on Innovation and Abuse.  Global Thermostat is very innovative – and it’s ‘out of the box’ approach prompts comments like the one just quoted. 

It also gives me an opportunity to explain who we are and how we do it.

Global Thermostat LLC (GT) ( was formed in 2006. It was co founded by Professor Peter Eisenberger of Columbia University and myself to develop and commercialize a unique technology for the direct capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and other sources. Our technology is so efficient that it can turn a fossil power plant into a carbon sink – reversing the usual equation: Now the more power you build, the more you clean the atmosphere.

How does this work?The GT process “co-generates” carbon capture with other industrial processes—such as power production—by using the ‘process heat’, the residual heat from those processes, to drive its carbon capture technology. By combining CO2 capture from air along with capture from the flue gas of an electrical power plant, and using the power plant’s low cost process heat to provide the energy needed for the air capture process, GT technology has the capability of transforming power plants into net carbon sinks.

Global Thermostat technology also can work with renewable power plants, because it captures carbon directly from air using the plant’s process heat. For example, heat from a Concentrated Solar Plant (CSP) can be used by Global Thermostat to drive its capture process. CO2 capture from air is different from other forms of carbon capture in that it extracts CO2 directly from the atmosphere at low temperatures and at a concentration of about 400 parts per million (ppm) or somewhat more. Other carbon capture technologies typically extract CO2 only from flue gases at higher temperatures and about 10% concentration of CO2. Actually, Global Thermostat technology works very economically in conjunction with standard capture technology (CCS) by combining air and the flue as its sources of carbon – a process that we call the “carburetor” for obvious reasons.  This is the most economical way to capture carbon using our technology – and as far as we know it is also the most economic way to produce carbon anywhere in the world. Why? The input is free (air) and the energy driving the process is often free as well (process heat) thus explaining why our cost of capturing CO2 is so low.

Carbon capture is an increasingly important activity in the US, which consumes almost 100,000 tons per day of CO2 for industrial gases and Enhanced oil Recovery. The US Department of Energy recently announced $2.3 billion in funding in carbon capture technologies. Additionally, China has built into its Twelfth Five Year Plan a 17 percent reduction of CO2 per unit of GDP output and is funding a number of its own initiatives to accomplish this goal.

GT’s technology has multiple advantages. The most important are: (i) GT’s plant location flexibility allows CO2 capture where CO2 can be used as a product, thereby reducing transportation and distribution costs, (ii) GT technology has the ability to make a power plant carbon negative, and (iii) GT technology uses low cost process heat to provide the energy needed for the air capture process.

CO2 air capture has gained momentum on the policy front and in the business community as a viable and economic solution for reducing carbon emissions and is now being introduced commercially with pilot demonstration plants.

The first GT pilot plant erected at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA, captures 1,000 tpy (tons per year) of CO2 and was co-developed with Corning and BASF. A commercial demonstration plant at SRI will start operating this summer. The CO2 captured at plants like this is available for use in applications such as enhanced oil recovery, greenhouses, production of industrial grade formic acid, producing bio-fuels from algae, and, when combined with hydrogen, for producing hydrocarbons such as high octane gasoline. According to the International Energy Agency, over 41 percent of all human based emissions of CO2 are generated by power plants and 89 percent of electricity production around the world is powered by fossil fuels. This represents an energy infrastructure valued in excess of $55 trillion dollars. As this cannot easily be replaced, CO2 emissions will be around for some time to come. However, with CO2 air capture, much of this emitted CO2 can be recovered and molecularly tied up, thereby lowering the CO2 loading in the atmosphere. With GT’s technology, the more electricity one produces, the more CO2 one can reduce from the atmosphere. This reverses the paradigm that links fossil fuel-based power production with carbon emissions. A GT plant utilizing process heat in its process can capture up to twice the CO2 that a coal power plant emits, leading to carbon negative electrical power production. Here is a snapshot of how GT’s technology works. Air and/or the flue gas mixture are moved by fans over a wall of Corning’s honeycomb monoliths, which are coated with a proprietary “sorbent” (amine based chemical) produced by BASF. The coated monoliths adsorb the CO2. Process steam is then used to desorb the CO2 from the wall. High purity CO2 is recovered and the process heat that the plant does not use drives the GT process, making it more cost effective. A CSP plant can be used to drive the process as well. The purity level of the CO2 gas recovered by GT’s process can be as high as 98–99 percent, and the stream can be further purified and/or liquefied using standard “compression” techniques.

Transportation costs for large volume gaseous CO2 are significant and can run as high as $1.5 million per mile for a pipeline, plus compression. With the GT process, these costs are drastically reduced or eliminated; a CO2 air capture plant can be located anywhere, needing only air and heat to operate. A GT plant can be built next to an oil field or a food processor, eliminating the need to pipe the CO2 over a long distance. Global Thermostat technology can reduce emitted CO2 by 200 percent (it is carbon negative) and also can operate alongside other conventional methods of CO2 capture. GT’s technology enhances the efficiency, capture rates, and CO2 purity levels generated by conventional processes, which typically only reduce 90 percent of the emitted CO2. Global Thermostat is negotiating commercial plants with the largest users of CO2 for industrial gases and Enhanced oil Recovery in the world, and is planning to introduce its own brand of Renewable Gasoline in the US Canada, Hawaii and China and believes that its process holds significant value in reducing environmentally damaging CO2 emitted by these nations while creating economic value for its CO2 consuming industries. We offer a solution that is profitable and can help national security and avert climate change. It cleans after today’s emissions and it accelerates the introduction of renewable power sources.  It can also favor developing nations who can use the funds offered by the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development  Mechanism to build carbon negative power plants that clean the atmosphere while the provide new sources of power.

Graciela Chichilnisky is the co-founder and Managing Director of Global Thermostat LLC.
She can be reached at [email protected] and 212-678-1148.