This blog was originally featured in Carbon180’s policy newsletter, The Deep End. Subscribe to get insights from carbon removal policy veterans straight to your inbox.

Direct air capture (DAC) technologies will play an essential role in addressing climate change, but to date, the projects that have gotten the most federal support are either pilot-scale or million-ton facilities. There is a large swath of direct air capture that has yet to be meaningfully included in the conversation: midscale DAC. 

True to its name, midscale (MSC) DAC removes 5K-25K tons of CO2 per year, compared to the million-ton goals of DAC hubs. Midscale DAC projects could enable developers, operators, and CO₂ buyers to balance immediate project-level financing needs with long-term objectives like removing enough CO₂ to attract established off-takers. 

The science behind DAC is sound, and the field is seeing quick progress, but the market is too nascent to help midscale DAC tackle its funding, research, and development gaps alone. Without incentives at every readiness stage of DAC, we risk technological lock-in, where incumbent providers monopolize funding and limit emerging technological innovation. Today, midscale DAC faces several immediate challenges:

  • Engineering: Projects must transition from pilot scale to commercial demonstration, which requires optimizing them for real-world applications.
  • Commercial: Securing funds, generating revenue, and managing debt effectively carries increased risk due to the lack of a well-developed market and difficulty finding buyers. Additionally, midscale projects often need help accessing expensive resources like energy.
  • Social license: DAC developers must demonstrate integrity, ensuring that communities benefit from DAC and are protected against risks. Without sufficient public support, the social license required for DAC may not be granted.

Successful midscale DAC projects could offer numerous opportunities, including providing a blueprint for transitioning other CDR pilots to commercial demonstrations and scaling industry knowledge and innovation capacity. This could yield direct performance data across various technologies, enhancing the Energy Department’s ability to refine carbon management standards and inform future program design. Additionally, these projects have the power to help build public trust through transparency, knowledge sharing, and comprehensive environmental and social impact analyses.

We cannot afford to support only those DAC prospects with the greatest immediate potential. Neglecting DAC’s “middle child” could mean missing out on vital support for our carbon removal efforts. The Energy Department’s recent request for information indicates their awareness of these challenges and opportunities. By supporting midscale DAC, the federal government could stimulate diverse projects and technologies to help the whole field succeed. 

Read Carbon180’s response to DOE on how best to champion midscale DAC.

Edited by Emily Reich. Image by Sven Mieke.