American Airlines will pay to bury 10,000 tons of CO2 underground

American Airlines has signed an agreement to capture 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide underground. It’s part of the airline’s plans to limit the pollution causing climate change, and marks the first major deal for Bill Gates-backed startup Graphyte, which is developing cutting-edge technology to tackle the problem.

Similar startups sell services to major brands that want to reduce some of the global warming emissions they release into the atmosphere. They are developing technology that filters CO2 from the air or seawater – equipment so expensive that it has not become scalable enough to make a meaningful dent in CO2 emissions.

It marks the first major deal for Bill Gates-backed startup Graphyte, which develops cutting-edge technology

Graphyte is unique in that it relies on a seemingly simple process to permanently store carbon underground, making its strategy much more affordable than its competitors. With a giant like American Airlines as its first customer, Graphyte has the opportunity to prove whether its technology can overcome the challenges faced by other carbon credit programs.

Graphyte claims it can capture carbon for the low price of $100 per ton. By comparison, the largest carbon dioxide removal plant currently in operation captures CO2 for companies like Microsoft, Stripe, and Shopify for about $600 per ton. When you consider that American Airlines produced the equivalent of 49 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2022, you can see how carbon removal costs could increase.

Industry insiders often point to $100 per ton as a target to make carbon removal technology affordable enough to scale. How did Graphyte achieve that goal? It claims to use significantly less energy than its competitors. Running machines that suck CO2 from the atmosphere or oceans tend to use a lot of electricity, a problem that drives up costs and can even limit how much good they do for the climate without access to enough clean energy sources.

Graphyte uses a completely different tactic, namely carbon casting. Essentially, it’s a way to mummify plant material – to keep it from decaying, which would otherwise release carbon dioxide that the plants absorbed while they were alive through photosynthesis. The company starts by collecting biomass, in this case waste from agriculture and wood production. It then dries the plant material, preventing decomposition by removing moisture and microbes. Then the biomass is tightly packed in bricks and encased in what Graphyte says is β€œan environmentally safe, impermeable barrier to ensure decomposition does not restart.” Bury those rocks underground and Graphyte says it can store the carbon dioxide the plants have absorbed during their lives for a thousand years.

The first commercial application of this method for American Airlines will take place at the Graphyte facility in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The company also receives financial support from Gates’ climate investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

The agreement will see Graphyte capture and store 10,000 tons of carbon for American Airlines by 2025, with carbon removal credits awarded for every ton of carbon removed. These credits resemble similar carbon offsets associated with forest or tree planting programs, programs that have been criticized for failing to result in real reductions in greenhouse gas pollution. Emerging credit markets for carbon removal methods such as carbon casting will need to prove they can keep proper accounting. In other words, they will have to demonstrate that new projects actually permanently sequester CO2 that would otherwise have been released into the atmosphere.

Furthermore, there is no point in a company being completely dependent on capturing carbon dioxide to combat climate change. Even at $100 per ton, it becomes prohibitively expensive to try to capture or offset tens of millions of tons of CO2 pollution every year. And the science is clear that tactics like carbon removal are only a supplement to the real cure for climate change: preventing pollution in the first place by ditching fossil fuels and switching to clean energy. For its part, American Airlines is also working to transition to sustainable aviation fuels and even reduce aircraft contrails that worsen global warming.

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