A life cycle assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from direct air capture and Fischer–Tropsch fuel production†
Direct air capture (DAC) separates carbon dioxide (CO2) from ambient air either chemically or physically. As such, it could be a potential climate mitigation tool when paired with geological sequestration of CO2 or downstream conversion to produce products with low life cycle carbon intensities. Of particular interest is the ability to pair CO2 from DAC with electrolytic hydrogen powered by renewable electricity to synthesize liquid hydrocarbons that can be used in transportation (often referred to as “e-fuels”). This presents a pathway additional to electric and fuel cell vehicles to harness renewable electricity for use in the transportation sector and may present an attractive opportunity as costs of renewable electricity and electrolysis equipment continue to fall. We conduct a life cycle assessment (LCA) of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of a DAC system paired with Fischer–Tropsch synthesis (FTS) to produce transportation fuel (i.e., diesel). This is the first LCA study of a DAC-to-fuel process based on data from an operating DAC pilot plant. We estimate the system emits 0.51 gCO2e per gCO2 captured from air or 29 gCO2e per MJ FTS fuel combusted in the baseline scenario, in which the electricity emissions factor used in the process is relatively low. This carbon intensity (CI) is extremely sensitive to changes in the electricity emissions factor. We find that an electricity emissions factor of less than 139 g CO2e per kW h is required for this pathway to provide a climate benefit over conventional diesel fuel. If a low carbon source of electricity is used, this pathway can deliver transport fuels at a CI lower than conventional diesel production and several biofuel pathways. This analysis suggests that fuel synthesis facilities need to be located in regions with very low grid emissions factors, or preferentially, co-located with new-build renewable electricity.