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University of Michigan could help develop one of four DOE-funded large-scale carbon capture factories

University of Michigan Central Campus sign
Anna Schlutt
Michigan Radio
University of Michigan

The Department of Energy is seeking interested research institutions and tech startups to help develop large-scale carbon capture factories — machines that can suck CO2 out of the air as one method of fighting climate change.

And the University of Michigan's Global CO2 Initiative is interested. The Initiative has expertise in helping carbon capture developers analyze and choose the best technology to pursue.

Volker Sick is director of the University's Global CO2 Initiative. He said we know how to remove CO2 from submarines and manned rocket ships. But large-scale carbon capture is in its infancy as a technology. Sick said the pace of climate change means its development can't wait.

"We have no time left to get started, we must start now," said Sick. "And do we know that we have the best available technology? We know that we don't. But we can't make it better unless we try to build some factories to learn. And that's what needs to happen now, really urgently,"

Volker said eventually it will require a very large amount of land, with a great deal of energy produced by solar or wind, for widescale global adoption of the factories. But for now, the first step is deciding - what size should these factories be?

"One gigantic factory that does everything in one place — that is unrealistic," he said. "So we need many of them, millions perhaps, hundreds of thousands, we don't know exactly yet what is the best size."

Volker said there are different ideas about what to do with the CO2 that is captured, including sequestering it in abandoned oil wells or in geologic formations. But he thinks a better approach would be to strip the carbon from the O2, and use the carbon to make marketable products.

The DOE program has access to $3.5 billion in federal funding for the development and construction of four carbon capture factories. Volker says DOE has set an expedited timeline to award the money, and drafting plans for the factories could begin as early as the end of this year, and no later than the beginning of 2024.

Despite his enthusiasm for carbon capture, Volker said people need to understand there is no one technology that can handle the daunting task of fighting climate change on its own.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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