Australian independent Santos is teaming up with the Australian government’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in a bid to develop, what they hope will be, the lowest cost direct air capture (DAC) technology in the world.

The pair will trial CSIRO’s Carbon Assist technology, which removes carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and in higher-concentration post-combustion scenarios.

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The captured CO2 can then be permanently stored as part of a carbon capture and storage (CCS) project or utilised to make carbon-based products.

Santos confirmed it would trial the technology at its recently sanctioned Moomba facility in South Australia, with the captured CO2 to be piped to the company’s recently sanctioned Moomba CCS project.

“This technology literally has the potential to negate emissions elsewhere in the economy, especially in hard-to-abate sectors that Australia still needs to manufacture essential everyday products – products like cement, steel and the chemicals that are the building blocks of the clothes we wear, our medical equipment, the packaging we use for bread and milk, the pipes that carry our water, toothpaste, detergents and many other things,” Santos chief executive Kevin Gallagher said.

“With Moomba CCS having capacity to store up to 20 million tonnes of CO2 every year for 50 years, Moomba could be a large-scale, commercial CCS hub not only reducing Santos’ emissions, but helping to cost-effectively negate emissions elsewhere in the Australian economy.”

CSIRO energy director Marita Niemelae added that carbon capture technologies would play a vital role Australia’s transition to net zero emissions by 2050.

“By collaborating with industry, we can demonstrate key technologies at scale, ensuring superior performance and economics,” Niemelae said.

“CSIRO has invested in CCS research for over 20 years, because of its potential for large-scale decarbonisation leading to emissions reduction and the creation of new industries. As Australia’s energy transition catalyst, CSIRO is ensuring a pathway to secure, affordable, low-emissions energy for decades ahead.”

Costs seen as major barrier for direct air capture technology

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), there are currently 19 DAC plants operating around the globe capturing roughly 100,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum.

However, Occidental Petroleum subsidiary Oxy Low Carbon Ventures is backing a 1 million tpa capture plant in the Permian basin of west Texas, in partnership with Carbon Engineering, that is anticipated to be up and running in 2023, while several other large-scale DAC projects are also in development around the globe.

Under the IEA’s net zero emissions by 2050 scenario, it envisages DAC being scaled up to capture more than 85 million tpa of CO2 by 2030 and about 908 million tpa by 2050.

However, one stumbling block for DAC technology currently is cost, with estimates from the IEA ranging from US$100 per tonne to as much as US$1000 per tonne.

Meanwhile, peer-reviewed research from Carbon Engineering released in 2018 showed capture costs of between US$94 per tonne and US$232 per tonne were achievable, depending on financial assumptions, energy costs and specific plant configuration.