Bill Gates' Investment Into Clean Energy Banks On A Deviously Brilliant Idea

“In science, miracles are happening all the time.”

The future of clean energy just might exist at an industrial complex on the outskirts the Canadian logging town of Squamish, British Colombia. That facility represents the first step in extracting climate-warming carbon dioxide from the air and using it to create carbon-neutral fuel, and it's the brainchild of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Harvard physicist David Keith, and oil sands businessman Norman Murray Edwards.

In "the equivalent of mechanizing photosynthesis," as The Guardian calls it, this technology could combine direct air capture, water electrolysis, and fuels synthesis to create synthetic diesel and petrol to power the world's ships, planes, and trucks — which are responsible for nearly a third of the world's climate-changing emissions. If they could get their new, carbon-neutral fuel to cost little more than fossil fuels, these three innovators could "revolutionize the world's transport industry," The Guardian notes.

In fact, Keith's company Carbon Engineering has already set up a prototype plant which extracts one ton of pure carbon dioxide each day. Now, Carbon Engineering is collaborating with California energy company Greyrock to synthesize petrol and diesel by combining that carbon dioxide with hydrogen split from water using clean energy. They call it Air to Fuels, or A2F.

"A2F is the future because it needs 100 times less land and water than biofuels, and can be scaled up and sited anywhere," Carbon Engineering's Geoff Holmes tells The Guardian, "But for it to work, it will have to reduce costs to little more than it costs to extract oil today, and — even trickier — persuade countries to set a global carbon price."

In 2015, Gates told The Atlantic the current shift from oil and coal to natural gas — which still emits carbon, albeit less than its predecessors — is insufficient in the face of global warming. He argued that we need to drive innovation "at an unnaturally high pace" to skip over natural gas and transition right into a carbon-neutral power source.

"What's amazing is how our intense energy usage is one and the same as modern civilization," Gates explained. "That is, for all the great things that happened in terms of human lifestyle, life span, and growing food before 1800, civilization didn't change dramatically until we started using coal in the U.K. in the 1800s. Coal replaced wood. But the wave of wood to coal is about a 50- or 60-year wave. If it was just about economics, if we had no global warming to think about, the slowly-but-surely pace of these transitions would be okay."

"We need innovation that gives us energy that's cheaper than today's hydrocarbon energy, that has zero CO2 emissions, and that's as reliable as today's overall energy system," he added. "And when you put all those requirements together, we need an energy miracle. That may make it seem too daunting to people, but in science, miracles are happening all the time."

Gates made those comments more than two years ago, though, and if he and his colleagues can make the A2F process scalable and economically viable, such a miracle may already be on the horizon.

Cover image via Shutterstock / robertwcoy.

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