Credit: Carbon Engineering

Direct Air Capture (DAC) is the somewhat misleading term that has come into use for chemical fixation processes designed to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Chemical fixation of atmospheric CO2 is nothing new – organisms capable of photosynthesis are thought to have evolved billions of years ago, while limestone formation from CO2 taken up by the oceans has been occurring for hundreds of millions of years. But mankind hasn’t had a go at it until recently.

The driving force behind the development of DAC is the conviction based on the best available science that current (and rising) atmospheric CO2 levels constitute an existential threat due to global warming and climate change, as well as ocean acidification and marine ecosystem disruption. There is a desire for technologies to augment both naturally-occurring fixation processes and emission-reducing initiatives in order to accelerate the process of bringing the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels to a halt and subsequently to achieve drawdown.

To put this task in perspective, let’s put a few facts and figures into it. Carbon dioxide is a thermodynamically stable gas and the densest component of air, 1.977 kgm-3 at STP compared with 1.293 kgm-3 for air. This does not mean however that CO2 sinks in air and accumulates in the lower atmosphere. Like any gas, CO2 exhibits the phenomenon of diffusion, which is the tendency of a substance to spread uniformly throughout the space available to it. And this is where the challenge of DAC lies. Although there is a lot of CO2 – ca. 3210 gigatonnes in 2018 (ref) – up in the air, the atmosphere is a big place and the concentration of CO2 (currently around 410 ppm) is tiny in the context of extraction. In other words a large amount of air needs to be processed for a modest rate of capture. It is therefore relevant to consider the processes of capture and conversion from a carbon oxidation state perspective, which has a direct bearing on process thermodynamics and economics.

Note: If it proves possible to reduce the partial pressure of CO2 in the atmosphere through DAC, oceanic release of dissolved CO2 should take place according to Henry’s Law to restore equilibrium between oceanic and atmospheric partial pressures. If this were the case, the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere could not be achieved separately from removing CO2 from the vastly bigger ocean reservoir, and the task of stopping the rise of the Keeling curve could not be separated from the rise in oceanic acidification. This would add a whole new dimension to the task of drawdown.

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Oxidation states and conversion energy

Carbon can exist in nine oxidation states, which are conveniently if somewhat abstractly represented by dimensionless numbers ranging from +4 (most oxidized state) to –4 (most reduced state). The lower the number, the more energy is present in carbon’s chemical bonds. So the process of reducing a carbon compound requires energy, the amount of which increases with the degree of reduction.

As the table shows, carbon in carbon dioxide has the highest oxidation state (+4). In terms of conversion energy requirement, it is self-evident that the least demanding option is to capture CO2 without reduction for subsequent release, containment and onward supply to industry. Capture technologies such as aqueous alkanolamine absorption are well-known, but in terms of product use it should be noted that carbon dioxide applications such as synthetic fuel feedstock and carbonated beverages will lead to atmospheric re-release and therefore cannot contribute to CO2 drawdown.

Note that Mother Nature makes use of CO2 capture without reduction in the process of oceanic uptake. The oxidation state of carbon in the carbonate ion that eventually becomes chemically fixed in limestone is still +4.

Turning to carbon dioxide capture with conversion, the oxidation state table shows that there are eight levels of reduction, each possessing its own product outcomes and synthetic opportunities. The formulas shown in the table indicate two strands in the reduction process – the addition of hydrogen and the removal of oxygen (for simplicity I have restricted the examples to combinations solely of C, H and O).

If we ask ourselves the question – What conversion process can we apply such that the energy requirement for reduction of CO2 is minimized, the answer suggests itself: a process that reduces the carbon oxidation state by just one unit, from +4 to +3.

Simple arithmetic suggests this can be achieved by combining two atoms of hydrogen with two molecules of carbon dioxide. And this is borne out in practice, although as we shall see the reducing agent need not necessarily be hydrogen.

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Converting carbon dioxide to oxalic acid

Consider a DAC process in which two moles of carbon dioxide are captured from the atmosphere and converted into one mole of oxalic acid (involving the addition of a mole of hydrogen). Now think about density change. Carbon dioxide is a gas, two moles of which occupy 44.8 liters at STP. Oxalic acid is by contrast a solid, a mole of which occupies 0.0474 liters. So in this conversion process the carbon atoms get packed into a space which is 946 times smaller. Woo. And because oxalic acid is a solid there is no requirement for pressurized containment or its associated cost.

One method by which this capture and conversion process can be realized has been published by researchers at Louisiana State University (ref). The chemical capture unit is built out of four pyridyltriazole chelating units linked by two meta-xylylene groups; complexation with CuCl2 gives a dimeric macrocycle which following cation reduction to Cu+ by sodium ascorbate is able to selectively capture and convert two carbon dioxide molecules into an oxalate ion as shown here

The oxalate ion is released as oxalic acid when treated with dilute mineral acid, regenerating the original copper complex. The reaction conditions are mild, reflecting the minimal reduction of carbon oxidation state from +4 to +3.

As I understand it the essential reaction sequence is as follows:

The oxidation of the ascorbate ion to a radical cation would appear to provide the thermodynamic impulse for this electron transfer sequence. Obviously there are other anions involved here, but the paper didn’t detail them so nor can I. What is evident however is that the energy demands of this process are modest, as one would anticipate for a unit reduction in oxidation state.

This paper was published 5 years ago as exploratory work. The kinetics in particular needed improvement and no doubt this has been addressed in further studies. My point in highlighting this work is to show the advanced level of innovation in facilitating oxidation state reductions by which atmospheric CO2 can be converted to carbon compounds of significant synthetic potential.

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Electrochemical reduction

With an enthalpy of formation ΔHf = -393 kJmol-1, carbon dioxide is a very thermodynamically stable compound. This explains why electrochemical reduction routes using the power of cathodic electrons have been sought to produce a CO2 anion which can enter into protic or aprotic reaction yielding formate or oxalate ions.

In Europe the acronym-intensive SPIRE (Sustainable Process Industry through Resource and Energy Efficiency) Association representing innovative process industries has a project running called OCEAN, which stands for Oxalic acid from CO2 using Electrochemistry At demonstratioN scale. OCEAN aims to develop an electrochemical process for producing high-value C2 chemicals from carbon dioxide via the following sequence:

1) reduce carbon dioxide (C1,+4) to formate (C1,+2)
2) dimerize formate (C1,+2) to oxalate (C2,+3)
3) protonate oxalate (C2,+3) to oxalic acid (C2,+3)
4) reduce oxalic acid (C2,+3) to glycolic acid (C2,+1)

The oxidation state sequence by which oxalic acid (4→2→3) and glycolic acid (4→2→3→1) are obtained from CO2 looks a bit lossy from an energy efficiency perspective, but this is just my impression. The project is running from October 2017 for four years and is EC-financed to the tune of €5.5 m.

Details of the OCEAN project can be found on these links:
https://www.spire2030.eu/ocean
https://www.fabiodisconzi.com/open-h2020/projects/211278/index.html

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P Mander July 2019

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