Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is such a huge and daunting task, it’s hard to know where to begin. In addition to resource limitations that make carbon removal – on the scale that’s needed – basically impossible at this point, the technology we need doesn’t exist yet and the proposals that have been set forth are not financially feasible. How does an organization of people come together to work on a massive project (that may even extend beyond their lifetimes) and realize its completion? History shows us that the best way to complete large engineering projects like this is with an approach that comes in phases. By taking small steps, eventually we will accomplish the goal.
A great example of this is the Panama Canal, one of the largest engineering projects ever attempted. All the major Western powers wanted to shorten the international trade routes that involved costly detours around the southern tip of South America.
The canal officially opened in 1914, but the first recorded interest in developing a trade route through it dates back to 1534—a difference of 380 years. Ownership of the land traded hands many times during that process, but the first real phase of work began in 1850 by what became known as the Panama Railway. That rail line allowed some trade to begin overland while others attempted to build a canal.
The French took the next step and in 1881 began trying to build a water canal. This project was so poorly designed and managed, however, that tens of thousands of workers died (before everyone knew mosquitoes carried deadly disease) and it was eventually halted in 1894.
The United States then took over (after nearly starting a war in the process) and in 1904 began construction of an elevated canal. The first phase of the American project involved building out the infrastructure necessary to support the working crews: protection from mosquitoes, housing, food supplies, storage depots, etc. The second phase was the actual construction of the canal. The Panama Canal officially opened for commercial traffic in 1914.
To recap the phases:
Phase 1 (1534–1850)—Manual overland trade. Likely pack animal or carried by men.
Phase 2 (1850–1914)—Panama Railway. Goods delivered on either ocean side and then transported by train to the other side.
Phase 3 (1914–Present)—Panama Canal. Goods transported by the same vessel on either side of the Panamanian isthmus.
Let’s look at the more recent and obvious example of Tesla Motors. Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, unveiled the Model 3 vehicle last week during a live keynote presentation. During the presentation, he specifically referred to the Model 3 being the incarnation of their phased approach to getting more electric vehicles on the road.
Phase 1 (2008–2012)—Tesla Roadster. This was a car built on the frame of a Lotus sportscar with some cobbled together electrical components. It was sold for about $110,000 and appealed mainly to wealthy buyers who wanted the latest and coolest technology. Tesla sold just under 2,500 of them during its production.
Phase 2 (2012–Present)—Tesla Model S. The Model S was Tesla’s first custom-designed and manufactured vehicle. It is still for sale today, and the base price is $76,000. Tesla passed the 100,000 sales mark in December 2015.
Phase 2.5 (2015–Present)—Tesla Model X. Musk himself called this phase 2.5 because it’s more similar to the Model S than the forthcoming Model 3. Currently, about 2,600 of these have been shipped.
Phase 3 (2017–)—Tesla Model 3. This is the goal Tesla has been working toward all these years: a mass market electric vehicle that everyone wants. Reservations began on March 31, and according to this tweet on April 7, they have achieved 325,000 reservations so far for the car that will begin shipping in 2017.
Phases are required for carbon removal as well, not just because of engineering difficulty, but because of finances required to fund it. Tesla used cash flow from the Roadster to fund the Model S, which then funded the Model X and the Model 3. Simply put, the technology to achieve large-scale carbon removal (on a scale that would actually make a measurable global difference) doesn’t exist yet. And financing that research warrants its own blog post, so let’s assume it’s not really feasible right now except by some small government research grants.
I keep running thought experiments in my head using a smartphone case with a filter built into it that passively absorbs CO2, so let’s use that as an example. Here are the phases I can envision when taking a consumer-products direction:
Phase 1—A smartphone case made out of AirCarbon. No filter included, because it doesn’t exist yet. The plastic case acts as a carbon sink, and as long as the supply chain is net negative or close to it (more carbon captured in the product than output from producing it) this is a good first step.
Phase 2—Plastic case made out of the same material, but this time with a removable filter. Using cash flow generated by sales of the phase 1 product, research and develop technology similar to what I discussed in the buckyballs post. The plastic continues to act as a carbon sink, and now there’s a CO2 sponge included in the case. If it’s removable, we could even design a business model around selling new sponges to current case owners and finding some recyclable use for the saturated sponges.
Phase 3—Find a way to utilize the carbon captured in phase 2 for something useful. My ultimate fantasy is a consumer product that captures CO2 and turns it into energy. Imagine a smartphone battery case that is self-charging by air itself.
Of course there would be many steps in between each phase. But Phase 3 is where the real magic happens. It (or something like it) is a product that is highly desirable by the general population. It doesn’t even really matter that it’s a carbon negative product – people would want it regardless. And that is how something that starts out really small and nonexistent gets funded and produced to scale to a level to make a difference.