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NETL Pittsburgh Site To Host New Direct Air Capture Center
Aerial photo of the R&D Plateau at NETL in Pittsburgh, PA

A new facility will be established at NETL’s Pittsburgh campus with the goal of jumpstarting the development of direct air capture (DAC) technologies that can provide new economic opportunities while lowering the quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the planet’s atmosphere.

DAC is an emerging technology that works by processing air from the atmosphere rather than a power plant or factory flue gas to capture CO2 emitted from multiple sources, thereby addressing both current and legacy emissions. DAC has been identified as an important tool to meet the Biden Administration’s goals calling for a carbon emission-free electricity sector by 2035 and economy-wide net-zero emissions by 2050.

Last year, Congress authorized $25 million for the new NETL Direct Air Capture Center. Scheduled to come online during the summer of 2024, the new facility will accelerate the commercialization of DAC technologies beyond the conceptual stage. The facility will provide developers with the ability to operate over a wide range of conditions, which will enable better understanding of how various DAC technologies respond in different climates, from summer to winter and arid to tropical. 

“DAC technology is still early in its evolution, and a wide variety of technologies are being explored,” said David Luebke, technical director of the NETL Direct Air Capture Center. “The new facility will be designed with substantial flexibility to accommodate the rapidly evolving technological landscape. The Center will feature dedicated engineering, scientific and logistical support for experimental system design, installation, execution of experiments, and interpretation of results.”

Testing systems at three scales will be included at the DAC Center: lab-scale systems designed to examine the long-term stability of DAC materials, bench-scale module testing systems capable of probing flow dynamics, and small pilot-scale skid rooms able to test prototype DAC units under a broad range of climate conditions. 

NETL is well-positioned to lead the development of DAC technology. The Lab has been instrumental in advancing research to capture CO2 from the flue gas streams produced by power plants and other industries and store it permanently and safely in deep underground complexes and geologic reservoirs or use it as a feedstock to produce higher-value products such as chemicals and plastics.

Projects at the DAC Center will have access to a plethora of dedicated NETL process modeling and analysis resources to evaluate the technoeconomic aspects of new technologies, a step toward commercialization and widespread adoption. Data generated by the DAC Center will also play a major role in enabling life cycle analysis (LCA) of emerging capture technologies.

LCA is a comprehensive form of analysis that evaluates the environmental, economic, and social attributes of energy systems, ranging from the extraction of raw materials from the ground to the use of the energy carriers to perform work (commonly referred to as the “life cycle” of a product). Results of LCA are used by technology developers and investors to evaluate alternatives from a global perspective.

The Lab’s Systems Engineering and Analysis team, the Carbon Capture Simulation Initiative, and the Institute for the Design of Advanced Energy Systems are all potential collaborators at the DAC Center with NETL’s testing partners from industry, academia, and other research institutions. NETL also has world class capabilities in device scale modeling, such as the MFiX software suite, that will be available to help design more efficient contactors and optimize unique internal configurations that can be realized by advanced manufacturing.

“DAC will be a cornerstone of decarbonizing the nation’s economy,” Luebke said. “The NETL DAC Center will become the gold standard in technology performance characterization as we collaborate with our partners to explore the potential of their diverse direct air capture concepts.

NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By leveraging its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.