The climate implications of emerging technologies that capture CO2 to produce transportation fuels (CCTF) are investigated by studying two examples: biodiesel from microalgae and Sandia National Laboratory’s S2P process. Simple performance and economic models for each technology are examined in the context of a bifurcated – “pre-decarbonization” vs. “post-decarbonization” – climate regime in which CCTF uses CO2 that is captured from, respectively, power plant flue gases vented to the atmosphere or taken from CO2 in pipelines destined for geologic storage. CCTF promises to improve domestic energy security by converting sunlight and waste CO2 into transportation fuels; in addition, these fuels are roughly climate neutral when CO2 is captured from either flue gases or directly from the atmosphere. However, after the power sector becomes largely decarbonized under a stringent climate policy, large point sources of concentrated CO2 are likely to be relatively rare, and unfortunately, fuels made from pipeline CO2 do not have markedly reduced net GHG emissions. Thus, absent the development of economical CO2 capture from air, it is difficult to see how CCTF can play a significant long term role in decarbonizing the US transportation sector (and thus reaching US climate goals).
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