A long-derided idea — find a way to affordably suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and fight climate change — is gaining steam again thanks to a Harvard professor who thinks he’s got it figured out.

Carbon Engineering, a company founded in Squamish, British Columbia, by Harvard applied physicist David Keith, is ready to build a plant in Texas’ oil-rich Permian Basin that’s designed to remove 1 million metric tons a year of CO2 from the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to the work of 40,000 trees, according to the company’s website.

Carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for climate change. While most planet-saving efforts involve preventing pollution through, say, the shift to wind and solar power, carbon capture targets the gas that’s already there. But it’s never really gotten off the ground because the process was complicated and expensive. There is also concern that big polluters, like major oil companies, would be granted a pass with the technology.

The American Physical Society estimated back in 2011 that the cost to capture a ton of carbon dioxide, using a leading method, was $550. But Keith theorized last year in an article in the journal Joule that carbon capture could be done differently for $94 to $232 a ton. Carbon Engineering CEO Steve Oldman has said the company can do it for less than $200, Bloomberg Businessweek reported, citing an interview.

The Permian Basin plant could remove the equivalent of the emissions of 250,000 cars from the atmosphere, according to the Bloomberg report.

Carbon Engineering doesn’t see the technology as a panacea, though, but rather part of a two-pronged approach that includes prevention. 

 “To restore a healthy balance of carbon in the air and maintain a safe climate, we must reduce the amount of carbon that we emit each day, and also remove excess carbon from the atmosphere to get us back to safe levels,” according to the company’s website.

  • Carbon Engineering says its machines pull in air and extract carbon dioxide using chemical reactions.
  • The captured CO2 can be stored underground or reused to make synthetic transportation fuels that replace some fossil fuels, the company says.
  • Carbon Engineering has plans to roll out hundreds and possibly thousands of carbon-capture plants around the world if the project in the Permian Basin works out, Blomberg reported.