Climate Tech

A conversation with DOE's Jennifer Wilcox, who (literally) wrote the book on carbon capture

Wilcox is a key figure in carbon capture and removal—here’s her take on the tech’s future.
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Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photo: Jennifer Wilcox

· 6 min read

Driving home from work one day in the early 2000s, Jennifer Wilcox heard an NPR segment that sparked a still-ongoing quest to scrub carbon from the atmosphere.

At the time, Wilcox, a chemical engineer, was researching how to mitigate mercury emissions from coal power plants. But after listening to an interview with MIT professor Howard Herzog about point-source capture, she decided to shift her focus.

“Mercury is a hard problem. It’s important,” she told Emerging Tech Brew. “But I was left being like, ‘I should take everything—all my tools, my entire skill set—and refocus on carbon.’”

Wilcox went on to write the first textbook about carbon capture in 2012—a time when she says chemical engineers were just beginning to establish that carbon removal would be technically feasible. Her research contributed to the technology behind Heirloom Carbon, a direct air capture (DAC) startup that’s raised $54 million since its founding in 2020.

Now she works at the US Department of Energy as the principal deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM), meaning she co-leads the many teams within the office.

FECM invests in emerging tech meant to minimize the environmental and climate impacts of US dependence on fossil fuels. This includes solutions that make emissions from fossil-fuel production—like methane—more transparent, as well as those that can reduce pollution from its use, such as carbon dioxide. The office also informs policy decisions, collaborates with other federal agencies, and conducts community engagement in areas where it plans to demonstrate new technologies.

We talked to Wilcox about the current and future state of carbon-removal technologies, and how she’s measuring technological progress as a pioneer in the space.

A tool in the toolbox, not a magic wand

While the latest IPCC report named carbon removal as a necessary part of mitigating climate change, there is a risk of looking at this technology as a kind of “magic tool,” Wilcox said.

Today, carbon removal has only scaled to about 10,000 tonnes of CO2 per year globally. To reach just one gigatonne annually by 2050, the industry will need to scale up six zeros in less than three decades, Wilcox said.

“We’ve never even done that before,” she said. “If we can get to a million tonnes over the next 10 years and maybe get down to $100 per tonne, that’ll be quite impactful. And we will know [carbon removal] can be part of our toolkit. We can start to think about how we depend on it. But guess what, if we invest all that and we can't move the needle? We want to know that it’s not in our toolkit.”

FECM is working together with other offices at DOE to develop the DAC hubs funded by the bipartisan infrastructure law. These four hubs each aim to remove 1 million metric tons of CO2 per year.

Prioritizing the drawdown

Carbon capture and carbon removal should be seen as tools to mitigate emissions from industries with few low-carbon alternatives, Wilcox said.

“We need to recognize that there are going to be some very, very hard-to-decarbonize sectors, like agriculture, like aviation, shipping, long-haul trucks. And that carbon removal should be seen as the tool that helps to counterbalance those truly hard-to-decarbonize sectors, not as a tool to keep business as usual,” she said.

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Estimates of how much annual carbon removal will be necessary later this century vary from 1.5 gigatonnes to 10 gigatonnes, depending on how much decarbonization the world achieves. We shouldn’t assume that we’re going to overshoot the carbon budget, Wilcox said, but in the US, those hard-to-abate sectors currently still add up to 1–3 gigatonnes of CO2 per year.

Although a string of expensive and inefficient carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects have led to significant criticism of the tech, Wilcox said it has a role in hard-to-decarbonize sectors. She argues that community engagement and management of CCS need to be improved, rather than any tech advancements, to make it a more effective tool. Cement production, which requires very high heat and produces CO2, is one industry that could benefit from CCS, she said.

But she hopes that a decade from now the FECM won’t need to be investing in point-source carbon capture.

“Because if we still have our office, and we’re still investing in the next new solvent—in terms of R&D—for point-source carbon capture? I mean, that’s just not the progress we need to make. We’ve got to be beyond,” she said.

When it comes to DAC—a form of carbon removal—a broad portfolio of approaches will be important, Wilcox said.

There are solvents used in DAC that are already able to be produced at a large scale, but emerging techniques that use solid sorbents—insoluble, porous materials such as zeolites that absorb liquids or gasses—could make the tech more efficient.

“It has the benefit of needing lower heat. So lower temperatures to operate, so significantly less energy, potentially. The problem is we don’t quite know how to make those materials on a large scale yet. And we also need to figure out better how to use them over and over again, so that they have a long life,” she said.

With nature-based carbon-removal approaches (e.g., planting trees, adjusting ocean alkalinity, or producing biochar) the big challenge is monitoring, reporting, and verification, Wilcox said.

“They may be $30 [per tonne of CO2]. Sounds a lot better than $300 a tonne, but the question is for how long are they going to be storing carbon?” she said. “How do we ensure durable storage of 1,000 years, greater than 100 years? And what's the cost of that?” she said.

Ultimately, Wilcox said inaction on developing these technologies is a bigger risk than any of the issues the industry is working to address.

“No solution is perfect, but we all have to be willing to bend a little bit and work together. Because if we dig our heels in too much on a perfect solution, we’re frozen. And we’re not making any progress,” she said.

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