How to integrate direct air capture into urban design

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The first commercial carbon removal plant, where CO2 is sucked out of the air and stored underground, is in a remote part of Iceland, far from a city. It is a massive industrial operation. But carbon capture technology doesn’t need to be sequestered in the middle of nowhere: it could also be embedded in neighborhoods, which could help build community support for larger plant construction. industries that are likely to be needed to help tackle the climate crisis. By mid-century, thousands of large direct air capture plants could be needed globally to extract emissions from the atmosphere as the economy decarbonizes.

[Image: courtesy Carbon180, Samuel Orellana]

In new renderings, Carbon180, a nonprofit focused on eliminating carbon, imagines how the technology could be added to local parks, apartment buildings or grocery stores. “When we think today of direct air capture . . . we think of these very large-scale industrial installations, which we know will be needed to cope with the scale of the climate crisis and to achieve our carbon removal goals,” says Giana Amador, co-founder and policy director of Carbon180. “But we also believe there’s a role for smaller-scale, innovative projects that are embedded in communities.”

[Image: courtesy Carbon180, Samuel Orellana]

The technology can be used anywhere on the planet because it extracts carbon directly from the air, and the air everywhere is full of carbon. Due to the logistics of moving CO2, many plants will be located next to places where carbon can be stored, for example, in a former oil well, where it can be pumped underground into rock formations. Because the technology uses a lot of energy, it also makes sense to put it alongside cheap renewable sources (in the recently built plant in Iceland, the process runs on geothermal energy). In other cases, it could be built next to factories that could use CO2, instead of fossil fuels, to make new materials.

A distributed network of direct air capture technology in a city would not be as practical if the CO2 could not be used on site. Still, Amador says, neighborhood factories could help people learn about unfamiliar technology. The non-profit organization considered how the equipment, which uses large fans to draw air into filters that extract CO2, could be added to a neighborhood park, for example, or integrated into a rooftop solar-powered convenience store. In an apartment building, technology could be added to the building’s heating and ventilation system to filter CO2 from indoor air, helping to improve indoor air quality. The captured CO2 could potentially be used in an on-site greenhouse to grow local foods.

[Image: courtesy Carbon180, Samuel Orellana]

The direct air capture industry has yet to do enough to engage with community groups who are concerned about new industrial sites. “I think a lot of the concern comes from the fact that direct air capture is a fairly nascent technology,” says Amador, “which means we have a lot of open questions about the impact of this technology on local communities.At present, around the world, there are a dozen direct air capture installations, and in total they capture on the order of 10,000 tons of CO2. it’s a big leap to go from that in these kind of very remote places like Iceland, where you’re in a research facility, to think about how these might actually be located at scale gigatons across the entire United States Smaller urban projects could help build public confidence Community members can help shape design decisions, land use choices, and the benefits that new projects can bring, including including new jobs.

Better politics can help communities be more vocal, Amador says. The new infrastructure bill provides billions of dollars in funding for new direct air capture projects. “The federal government can consider community engagement and these community benefits when selecting projects,” she says. “I think by doing this we can really not only create high quality direct air capture projects and direct air capture hubs, but really push the field forward and go a lot faster .”

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