A Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Vacuum??

Amy Lee, Environmental Consultant, Artist
Featured Water Professional

I saw a headline in the summer (2023) saying “Biden Administration to invest $1.2B on a Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Vacuum”. My initial reaction was: ‘Huh??’ 

Considering this headline was published the same week that US Congress’ first UAP (a.k.a. UFO) hearings took place - my gut, as an XFiles fan, giggled with conspiracy theory delight that this might be where the US government gets the funding for UAP research! If you are sensing my skepticism - I was and still am skeptical - but with a bit more information on the subject.

My scientific side kicked-in and realized how little I actually know about carbon dioxide’s role in the climate change debate. I decided to research this a bit and see where I might uncover some scientific truths. 

I began by asking the questions:

  • Is Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage (CCS) really a viable solution to reducing carbon dioxide’s effect on the climate? (Viable meaning - does it actually work, is it scalable across the globe, and is it cost-effective?)
  • Is $1.2B truly going to make a dent in the problem?
  • Where does the excess CO2 end up and does it stay there permanently or potentially result in a catastrophic release of CO2 back into the atmosphere sometime in the future?

So, what is a CO2 Vacuum?

The US Department of Energy announced in August 2023 its intention to spend $1.2B on the largest global demonstration projects to use technologies to process CO2 from the atmosphere into underground storage. These technologies are very new, experimental, and emerging.

About The Technologies

There are multiple experimental ways that humans could attempt to sequester the carbon from carbon dioxide. Some carbon Capture and Storage methodologies employ theoretically closed-loop strategies whereby CO2 is captured from the atmosphere and pumped deep underground with the theory being it could later be extracted as a fossil fuel, burned to produce CO2 again, and then recaptured and returned underground again over many cycles. Many capture strategies copy current natural methods that the Earth already employs for carbon sequestration; however, all strategies attempt to help nature recycle atmospheric carbon faster using one of many experimental technologies:

Soil Sequestration

Related to plant sequestration - soil naturally acts to sequester carbon on Earth through the processes of plant growth. Human projects aim to move excess CO2 from the air and provide incentives to farmers to grow more trees rather than farmland or to use no-till practices which releases less CO2 from the soil or planting cover crops to sequester more carbon. These are called “carbon farming” practices. The scientific community is unsure how effective this method is in sequestering carbon. There are questions about the maximum carbon different soils can hold to saturation and scientists have estimated that the tonnage of carbon that can be sequestered using this method may be lower than the IPCC estimates have touted. Farmers prefer voluntary efforts rather than sweeping policy changes that may negatively affect their production of existing products (including food for growing populations).

Geologic Sequestration and Mineralization

A CO2 fan pump draws CO2 out of the air where it is concentrated and then is mixed with water (fresh or saline) and pumped into igneous rock (pumice) formations where it mineralizes in the pores of the rocks which suck up this liquid like a sponge and fill in the holes of the sponge as a solid mineral. Typically, in the US, concentrated CO2 (90% liquified CO2) is pumped into geologic wells or storage hubs where it has been determined to be safe for long-term storage of concentrated CO2. There is an interactive USGS map here that identifies viable geologic formations for the geologic sequestration of carbon from carbon dioxide. (For the reader's information, two of the reviewers of this article worked on the application of geological sequestration of CO2 in Pennsylvania. One of the big issues is who owns the pore space or voids in the rock fabric.)

Leading-edge versions of this technology are emerging from the Swiss company, Climeworks, in combination with the Icelandic company, Carbfix. These two companies are at the forefront of this technology research. Carbfix currently uses fresh water, but has developed a way to also use seawater for this process. A video of this process is linked here with additional information on the respective company websites.

Note: ”Carbfix's carbonated water reacts with rocks underground and releases available cations such as calcium, magnesium and iron into the water stream. Over time, these elements combine with the dissolved CO2 and form carbonates filling up the empty space (pores) within the rocks. The carbonates are stable for thousands of years and can thus be considered permanently stored. The timescale of this process initially surprised scientists. In the CarbFix pilot project, it was determined that at least 95% of the injected CO2 mineralizes within two years, much faster than previously thought.”  (Source: Carbfix: How it Works)

As an aside - Given the recent volcanic activity in Iceland in particular there is a buzz online regarding whether the efforts to sequester carbon from carbon dioxide are negated by this natural activity. One scientist calculated that human carbon dioxide emissions are nearly 90 times greater than global volcanic activity.


A natural process to sequester carbon in the ocean exists in the form of algae and phytoplankton sinks. It is unclear how much carbon the ocean absorbs over time, but it is thought to absorb 30–40% of all human CO2 activity. Other studies indicate almost ¼ of the Earth’s CO2 is absorbed in the Oceans. Another study also points to the southern oceans’ winter effect of ‘burping’ CO2 which likely needs to be accounted for in any ocean sequestration abilities because they found that the absorbing abilities of the southern oceans are negated by possibly 34% during the Antarctic winters when the oceans emit CO2.

Many novel approaches to using the Oceans’ ability to sequester CO2 have been proposed and researched with several mentioned below. Speeding alkalinization (Ocean Alkalinity Enhancement (OAE)) of the oceans is the key to most of these technologies which has the beneficial side effect of reducing ocean acidification for marine life, but is not without legal challenges. The majority of ocean technologies are attempting to enhance the oceans’ ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere; however, Direct Ocean Capture (DOC) aims to remove CO2 already absorbed into the ocean in order to allow the Ocean to absorb more.

A project from scientists at Columbia and MIT involves pumping concentrated CO2 into seafloor sediments where it becomes heavier than water and stays there. Effects on water chemistry with this method are questionable.

The Ocean Nourishment Corporation (ONC) in Australia has proposed methods to overfeed low-nitrogen areas of the ocean with their “AquaFood” formulation to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton which will naturally absorb CO2.

Researchers from Harvard and Pennsylvania State University (PSU) proposed building remote solar plants on islands off Alaska or the South Pacific that would split seawater to get hydrogen which, when combined with seawater, would create hydrochloric acid to spray on rocks, weathering them faster than the natural weatherization processes. The relevant natural weathering process in the production of carbonic acid, formed when atmospheric CO2 dissolves in water. Carbonic acid is a much weaker acid than hydrochloric acid which is why it would take longer for the carbonic acid, brought down in rain, to weather the rock. Such weathering creates carbonates which can then wash into the oceans, becoming part of the ocean sediments. Unfortunately, the cost of the energy to split the hydrogen from the sea water and make hydrochloric acid and the alkalinization (increasing the pH) effects on the ocean made this approach questionable.

Ocean alkalinization is a process by which alkaline (high pH) substances are typically added to seawater or along shorelines to enhance the ocean’s natural ability to absorb carbon from CO2. The Harvard and PSU project attempts to remove hydrogen from water which also has the side-effect of raising pH. Most research in this area aims to enhance and potentially disrupt the natural balance between CO2 in the air, water, and minerals on the planet. The natural balance of this natural chemical equilibrium is best described in the interactive diagram here.

Atmocean’s, “Ocean Surface Carbon Relocation (OSCAR)” technology uses wave and salinity actions of the upper ocean to push dissolved carbon deep into the ocean where it is isolated for decades to centuries. Deployment costs about half of traditional industrial sequestration technologies.

Kelp is very good at sequestering carbon. RunningTide, a startup in Portland, Maine, is looking to use this ability to remove more carbon from the atmosphere by deploying engineer constructed kelp buoys to speed the process.

Direct Ocean Capture (DOC)

Direct Ocean Capture (DOC) involves removing dissolved CO2 from the Oceans and in-effect allowing the oceans to absorb more atmospheric CO2. It is debatable whether this technology is more effective than removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere. 

Electrodialysis (California Institute of Technology) and Electrochemically modulated CO2 (MIT) methods of DOC are attempting to bring costs below industrial removal technologies. However, it is questionable whether it results in more ocean acidification which adversely affects phytoplankton and then the ability of the phytoplankton to sequester additional CO2. The electrochemical modulation methods shift the carbonate equilibrium in seawater from bicarbonate to more dissolved CO2, increasing the acidity of the seawater. The dissolved CO2 is then collected under vacuum and the sea water alkalized before being pumped back into the ocean. The CO2 then needs to be disposed of through deep geologic formations or it can be converted to ethanol for fuel, although it is questionable whether this process would require more energy than the ethanol is capable of as a fuel.

UCLA has proposed a single step DOC carbon sequestration and storage (sCS2) ocean technology that removes CO2 from seawater using a flow reactor which pumps seawater in and alkalinizes it, setting off a chemical reaction that ultimately results in sold compounds of limestone and magnesite. These compounds are then returned to the ocean along with the CO2-cleansed water ready to absorb more CO2 through natural processes. 

Hydrolytic softening is another DOC technology under research from the University of South Dakota resulting in carbonate hydrolysis (decomposition reactions requiring chemical interaction) rather than calcination (requiring an input of energy).

Plant Sequestration

This is a natural process where plant activity (photosynthesis) acts to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere. Human projects involving plant sequestration generally are using plants as BioEnergy where plants like wood and grasses remove CO2 from the air - these are burned and the CO2 captured with useful energy created in the process.

Industrial Sequestration / Smokestack Capture

Chemical processes, similar to how a still works for distilling alcohol from grain, are used to remove CO2 from smokestacks in industrial settings prior to emission using cooling and amines that can aid in carbon trapping via hydrogen and nitrogen bonds which release oxygen in a chemical process. This process is proven to work and costs about $40 per tonne of CO2 while also removing other atmospheric pollutants. As of 2019, Industrial capture accounted for 1% of total CO2 capture across 43 commercial large-scale plants globally.

Direct Air Capture (DAC)

CO2 is removed from the air using chemical processes like smokestack capture; however, because natural air has 300 times less concentration of CO2, this method is not very efficient and very expensive when applied to natural air versus a factory smokestack. Two of the most widely recognized companies today investing in this technology are: Swiss company Climeworks and Carbon Engineering from Canada.

Until they can be applied on a large scale, all of the above technologies have questionable effects on global climate change and the short and long-term environmental effects of these technologies are also unknown.

Space extraction/sequestration

Extreme bleeding-edge thinking - Some have started to look at CO2 like space junk and at ways to treat the two similarly. This led researchers to theorize methods of pumping CO2 into the upper atmosphere on a sort of space elevator; however since CO2 is heavy, unless it is beyond the Adams Line, 29,825 km from Earth’s surface, it will fall back to Earth.

Facts Uncovered:

  • Carbon capture was proposed in 1938 and the first Carbon Capture plant was put in place in Texas in 1972.

  • Iceland gets 85% of its total energy from hydro and geo-thermal sources - the highest  use of renewables of any country. In Iceland they have a technology to remove CO2 by mineralizing it into certain igneous rocks which absorb the CO2 like a sponge, storing 100 kilos of CO2 per cubic meter.
  • 50% of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in the US come from energy production or industry according to the US EPA.
  • There are two projects in Louisiana and Texas which aim to remove 2 million metric tons of atmospheric CO2 per year - equivalent to removing 500,000 cars from the roads. Neither Lousianna or Texas are known for their igneous geology so it is unclear that the technology Iceland is using is the same technology these projects would be using.
  • There is a method to pump captured carbon dioxide into the ground to push out more oil which the Dept of Energy said these projects would not be doing in the initial $1.2B proposed funding, but it is not stated what these projects would do with the carbon once extracted in these recently funded projects specifically.
  • It is unclear if cradle-to-grave analysis of the technology has been performed to ascertain whether more energy (and potentially more carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels for that energy) might go into the removal of the carbon dioxide than went into its creation in the first place.
  • Humans on both sides of the climate debate are passionate about living on the Earth well but the means by which we thrive best is debatable.
  • UN Data indicates China’s CO2 emissions are about double that of the US and account for ⅓ of CO2 emissions globally. The US produced about 5,000 Million tons of CO2 in 2018 compared with 9,500 Million tons in China. In 2019, the US accounted for 13% of global CO2 emissions.

  • Current Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects globally have the ability to capture 45 Million tons of CO2 per year (equal to about 10 Million cars emissions).. That means to cover just China and the US emissions annually this effort needs to grow over 322 times if no efforts to curb emissions are also employed.
  • Agriculture contributes about 10% of US GHG emissions. N2O from fertilizer makes up the largest portion and it has about 300 times more global warming potential than CO2.
  • Seawater holds up to 150 times more CO2 than air with the atmosphere and ocean working together to remain in that equilibrium.
  • Occidental Petroleum and Climeworks are the companies to receive the $1.2B.
  • Climeworks is successfully removing 4,000 tons of CO2 annually from the atmosphere near geothermal plants in Iceland using their mineralization processes into the igneous bedrock.
  • 4,000 tons of CO2 is equivalent to a few seconds of human-created emissions globally.

  • Occidental Petroleum’s primary business is oil operations in the US, Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. The net-zero-initiative marketing information on their website has a disclaimer indicating that none of what they promote as potential solutions for the future may materialize.

  • The “Inflation Reduction Act,” which also earmarks $369B+ of dollars towards climate change initiatives, passed 51 to 50 on the Senate floor.

  • There is a tax credit under a separate bill called 45Q that provides benefits to those engaging in carbon sequestration.

  • Climate advocates for poor and minority communities fear carbon sequestration efforts prolong the burning of fossil fuels in their communities, citing that oil companies are the first to benefit from tax cuts for efforts to sequester carbon, all whilst continuing to prolong the problem sequestration is supposed to be addressing. It in effect allows oil companies to thrive while a transition to a non-fossil fuel economy emerges.

  • The Paris Agreement of the IPCC (which Trump backed the US out of) sets the goal of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. This goal sets a requirement by those who are part of the agreement to capture 1M tonnes of CO2 by 2030. Bloomberg reports the cost of these services could reach $1 Trillion before 2030 if the world uses CO2 removal strategies rather than offset payments.

  • Most of the currently used technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere occur in industrial plant settings like power plants and cement plants where CO2 is captured chemically before it goes out the smokestack.

  • Current CCS techniques involve pipelines transporting captured CO2 that is compressed into a liquid and then pumped into geologic formations that are super salty or spent oil well deposits to utilize the CO2 for enhanced oil recovery.

  • There are experimental possibilities to commoditize CO2 into viable sellable products, but none on a large enough scale to drive more CO2 capture infrastructure investments. SpaceX is hoping to make it into rocket fuel.

  • Data collected from the last several decades has produced a scientific consensus among engineering experts, scientists, and geologists that it is safe to permanently inject CO2 deep underground and that every continent has a place where this can be done safely.
  • The cost of proven removal processes is still high, $40 per ton smokestack removal, and does not account for the transport of concentrated liquid CO2 to safe underground injection points. Nor does it include the cost of creating and maintaining the CO2-capturing infrastructure (like fuel, cement, etc.) Additional removal, utilization, and storage costs, need to be included if not subsidized by global governments.

  • Using CO2 to enhance oil recovery seems counterintuitive; however, if the fuel economy could reach the theoretically achievable closed-loop cycle it makes a bit more sense.

  • MIT has estimated that the amount of CO2 storage capacity in the US would be enough for the next 100 years; however, these are estimates and much is still unknown about actual storage capacity limits.

  • If pipelines are used to move concentrated CO2 to sink locations, a leak of 7-10% could cause immediate life threatening concerns. Leaks at sink locations, via fissures/faults/fractures, or unexpected seismic activity could have similar concerns. These potential concerns lead to the public ‘Not in My Backyard’ effect. When the public is educated about the technologies they are often neutral or positively in favor of the efforts for CCS; however, they don’t want the ‘S’ storage component near them.

  • The $1.2B spent on initial CO2 vacuum projects is part of a larger Department of Energy $3.7B package under the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal” passed in November 2021 said to “improve roads, bridges, access to clean drinking water, access to high-speed internet, tackle the climate crisis, advance environmental justice, and invest in communities that are too often left behind.” See more about planned spending use here amounting to over $520B in total spending approved.

Conclusions and Thoughts

After a lot of reading and educating myself a bit more about this topic, I learned there is still a lot to be discovered via research efforts as well as my own personal education on the topic. Did I answer my initial questions?

Is Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage (CCS) really a viable solution to climate change? (Viable meaning - does it actually work, and is it cost-effective?)

  • WIth all of the varying opinions I read during preparation of this post, I would have to say: Yes, maybe it works. There are proven technologies that do work, and some that are not known to work well or cost effectively at this time. More research is needed.

Is $1.2B truly going to make a dent if so?

  • Definitely not. At $40 per ton cost for removal only (not transport nor storage costs), using proven industrial technologies, and given the US annual emissions of 5,000 Million tons per year in 2018, it just doesn’t add up. $1.2B, using proven industrial technologies, would have the potential to remove a little over 26 Million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere or only 0.5% of the annual US 2018 emissions. Stated another way: it would take $20 Trillion to remove the CO2 emissions of the US from 2018 at current costs using industrial methods. That’s - per-year. For perspective, the 2022 annual revenue of the US government was $5 Trillion. So, this is not viable or feasible with current technologies. However, emerging technologies may lower the cost of proposed solutions. Make no mistake, though, that much of the funding going towards this research is going to profit oil companies - not scientific institutions.

Where does the excess CO2 end up and does it stay there permanently or potentially result in a catastrophic release of CO2 sometime in the future?

  • It ends up deep underground - typically in spent oil wells with the goal being to  enhance the production of oil which seems counterintuitive to use CO2 to unearth oil that creates more CO2. However, theoretically with investment in CCS technologies, it is thought there is a point at which we could reach a closed loop scenario where CO2 produced from carbon emissions goes right back where it came from only to be harvested down the road as fuel later – theoretically and not without potential negative side-effects from leaks. Also, there doesn’t seem to be any cost-effective viable advantage identified at this point other than getting more oil out of the ground.

There is still a lot of research needed to determine the cost-benefit and cradle-to-grave scenarios of these bleeding-edge technologies and I’m glad I learned more in this process. 

A question that still remains for me and which I think needs more research is:

We know that through natural processes, the atmosphere and oceans maintain CO2 in an equilibrium state. All of the human research and interventions to remove CO2 either from air, seawater, or industrial mechanisms seem to be failing to identify the maximum capacity for that equilibrium to be maintained in a state favorable to humans and the rest of the environment. It seems to me that whenever humans intervene in miraculous Earthly processes that we affect the balance of this equilibrium in a detrimental way. I think we need to balance the rush and cost-investments to remove CO2 with research into where the points of no return may be before tinkering with earthly experiments. In my experience, the Earth always knows best how to support life here. The levers and knobs for doing so rarely involve just one variable (like CO2) and we need to learn from the Earth before we fool with it. 

Actual scientific reason needs to be applied, not policy, ideology, or money-driven (crony capitalism) ambitions. Please consider reading, “The New Year has Started, and We Need to Change How We Address Water Issues”. Even though the article has a focus on water policy, the concepts in the article can be applied to most of our environmental challenges.  The underlying issue is that we need to make decisions based on facts and evidence and not ideology. 

For now, I will keep drawing alien beings on pottery who breathe CO2 for fun in my satirical attempt to acknowledge both the controversies of climate change scientifically while fueling my X-Files fantasies. Please consider reading Environmental Art by Amy Lee.

Terminology and Acronyms Used:

CCS - Carbon Capture and Storage

CCUS - Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage

CFC’s - Chlorofluorocarbons

CH4 - Methane

CO2 - Carbon Dioxide - one of several “GHG’s” - see below.

DAC - Direct Air Capture

DOC - Direct Ocean Capture

FCCC - United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

GHG’s - Greenhouse Gases (including: Methane, Carbon Dioxide, Nitrous Oxide, Chlorofluorocarbons) 

IPCC - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

N2O - Nitrous Oxide

OAE - Ocean Alkalinity Enhancement

ONC - Ocean Nourishment Corporation

sCS2 - Single Step Carbon Sequestration and Storage

Some Suggested Reading:

Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters

Global Warming-Alarmists, Skeptics and Deniers: A Geoscientist Looks at the Science of Climate Change

The Beaches are Moving

Sea Level Rise: A Slow Tsunami on America's Shores

Hot Talk, Cold Science: Global Warming's Unfinished Debate

Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA

Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can't Predict the Future

The Deliberate Corruption of Climate Science

Introduction to Carbon Capture and Sequestration (Berkeley Lectures on Energy)


Sustainable Solutions - Air Pollution (2 CEUS)

Carbon Sequestration Courses (4 PDHs - 2 courses) - Subject Area: Environmental (Topic Air Pollution)


CNN.com | Biden administration to invest $1.2 billion in projects to suck carbon out of the air

DiscoverMagazine.com | Whatever Happened to the Hole in the Ozone Layer?

Independent.org | Hot Talk, Cold Science (2021)

BBC.com | Fact-checking the US and China on climate and environment

WhiteHouse.gov | Fact Sheet: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal

Energy.gov | Biden-Harris Administration Announces $3.7 Billion to Kick-Start America’s Carbon Dioxide Removal Industry

EENews.net | ‘Down your throat’: Biden pushes CCS on polluted places

CSIS.org | Soil Carbon Sequestration: Myths, Realities, and the Biden Administration’s Proposals

Britannica.com | carbon sequestration

MIT.edu | Study reveals uncertainty in how much carbon the ocean absorbs over time

IEEE Spectrum | Using the Oceans to Help Capture Carbon

NPR | A year in, landmark U.S. climate policy drives energy transition but hurdles remain

Climeworks | Remove to zero

OXY | Energy Company

Bloomberg | Biden Bets Billions on Tech That Sucks Carbon Out of the Air

IPCC | International Panel on Climate Change

MIT | Carbon Capture

Columbia Climate School | You Asked: Does Carbon Capture Technology Actually Work?

Honeywell | How Carbon Capture Works

Scientific American | Will Carbon Capture and Storage Ever Work?

Treehugger | Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Pros and Cons

Reuters | World's largest plant capturing carbon from air starts in Iceland

Carbfix | Natural and permanent storage solution by turning CO2 to stone

1 Point Five | Storing CO2 with Sequestration

Phys.org | SpaceX is hoping to turn atmospheric CO2 into rocket fuel

USGS | Geologic Carbon Dioxide Sequestration Interactive Map

WION | What if space junk and climate change become the same problem?

Wired | A Space Elevator for Carbon Dioxide

Oceanus | Proposals Emerge to Transfer Excess Carbon into the Ocean

Ocean Nourishment Corporation (ONC) | Scalable Carbon Dioxide Removal for a Safe Climate

ATM Ocean | A Wave Energy Company

The Atlantic | Kelp Is Weirdly Great at Sucking Carbon Out of the Sky

Running Tide | Carbon Removal by deploying Carbon Buoys

Carbon Engineering | CO2 Capture directly out of the atmosphere

EPA | Effects of Ocean and Coastal Acidification on Marine Life

ARPA -E | The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy

Nature | A direct coupled electrochemical system for capture and conversion of CO2 from ocean water

National Energy Technology Laboratory | Hydrolytic Softening of OceanWater for Carbon Dioxide Removal

MIT News | How to pull carbon dioxide out of seawater

Columbia Law School | Removing Carbon Dioxide through ocean alkalinity enhancement

Pichimahuida Nature Reserve | Nature Research | Massive ocean carbon sink spotted burping CO2 on the sly

UCLA | Could the ocean hold the key to reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?

Air Quality News | Time for fact-checking as CO2 misinformation surrounds Iceland’s volcanic eruption

Big Chemical Encyclopedia | Carbonates hydrolysis

Wikepedia | Calcination

Wikepedia | Amine

American University | What is Ocean Alkalinization?

PBS Learning Media | Carbon Dioxide and the Carbon Cycle

Note: I do not tend to use Google in researching subjects like this. I instead prefer to use DuckDuckGo.com - DuckDuckGo.com is committed to not tracking my online activities, and because of this, I feel it gives a more unbiased listing of information for any research purpose on the Internet. I occasionally will perform a Google search to uncover answers to my questions just to see what is pushed to the top of the search engine hits, recognizing that this information is often at the top due to AdWord purchases promoting the information.