All hands on DAC for open hardware

Image: Kelly Sikkema

by Courtni Holness, policy advisor

When we think of emerging carbon removal solutions, we often skew toward commercial facilities of direct air capture (DAC) machines, which vacuum CO₂ out of the sky. On the surface, these solutions are inaccessible and larger-than-life — most people don’t think about participating in the creation of these solutions, or see themselves as innovators on a new frontier. But what if they could be? From AAA batteries to rooftop solar panels, civil society’s involvement in and support for nascent energy technologies has been vital for building shared understanding and infrastructure.

So far, there are still limited applications of DAC today, and a number of questions remain around cost, energy use, and environmental justice. While DAC is gaining momentum in academia, industry, and government, the few projects that do exist are driven by private companies and investors. At the same time, there is a growing open-hardware community that is pooling knowledge and resources from across countries and disciplines in a collective effort to overcome some of DAC’s most prominent challenges. Both of these approaches have their own value in driving DAC innovation; open-source pathways can complement larger industrial applications by enabling and benefiting from the participation and education of problem solvers across the world. Recently, I had the opportunity to get an inside look at an open-hardware community for DAC and even build my own at-home unit — but first, let’s talk about what makes open hardware valuable.

Open hardware involves publicly sharing materials, techniques, and instructions to collectively design and iterate on technologies. While transparency and open sharing of information are key pillars of open hardware, another notable element is its focus on community building. Anyone with interest, time, internet access, and a few common materials can get involved.

As it stands, students, entrepreneurs, retailers, and people of all trades have unique skills and expertise to help advance DAC — but productive, trusting relationships between these individuals don’t just spring up overnight, nor without extensive resource and information exchange. The open-hardware community does the difficult and necessary work of creating inclusive and transparent environments that can leverage global collaborations to advance our climate goals — oftentimes, without the added strength of federal policy that buoys emerging commercial DAC efforts.

The inclusive grassroots nature of open-hardware initiatives can also improve the public’s varied and developing perception of DAC. When community members share their experiences with family and friends, they serve as good-faith messengers — representatives who both raise awareness and potentially extend an open invitation to join the movement. Widespread familiarity and trust among the public will be crucial to advancing DAC, and community-driven initiatives are a powerful way to achieve that.

My interest in this approach was piqued when I discovered the OpenAir Collective, an open-hardware community on a mission to research, develop, and advocate for carbon removal technologies. I participated in the research and development work, which tries to overcome engineering barriers for DAC. It was here that I learned about a “do it yourself” DAC unit that I could assemble at home using everyday materials, and immediately sought instructions from my newfound community. I was pleasantly surprised to find a subset of folks who had publicly posted trials from their own build, as well as data from operating the unit. This open sharing of experience and information made it easier for me to understand and collect materials for my own unit and later iterate on its design. When equipped with learnings from other users, individuals and groups alike can reiterate contemporaneously and advance DAC designs on a more aggressive timeline.

Open hardware draws on the multidisciplinary expertise and creativity of individuals, and some of the most successful open-hardware projects have extensive international networks of users and contributors. For example, one low-cost, open-access project provides instructions to build an environmental data collection tool that fits on standard kayaks or canoes — a true blend of citizen science and environmental activism. Other groups like Raspberry Pi strive to remove barriers to entry in computing. With computing costs lower than $5, this open-hardware project brings technology and computing education to people across all demographics and geographies. With these successes in mind, participating in a community-organized carbon removal project seemed like the perfect opportunity to share my work in climate solutions with my mom — and prove that anyone interested can participate in furthering DAC. Together, we joined fellow open-hardware DAC enthusiasts on Zoom for a build session and assembled the unit in under an hour. The build session helped my mom — someone who had no prior knowledge of DAC — realize that contributing to climate solutions does not have to be complicated or technically challenging, and that she can have an impact as an individual. Hear more about open hardware (and see some of my own build) below.

Today, our DIY DAC unit sits in our living room and captures a few grams of carbon each day. This may sound like a small impact, but the more folks who build and improve upon the design, the greater the effect can be field wide. And importantly, it solicits more discussions with friends and family than any other centerpiece we’ve had in our home. Community-developed solutions have the ability to start small, iterate quickly, and later migrate to commercial scale.

The larger the community working on DAC designs and operations, the stronger the outcome — open hardware allows folks across the globe to participate in building climate solutions. Collective action offers multiple ways to solve a problem, resulting in greater flexibility and agility. Instead of operating within the constraints of a company, innovators can design and create smaller DAC units right at home.

Here at Carbon180, I approach DAC from a federal policy perspective and consider ways that policy can help deploy DAC in socially and environmentally just ways. That understanding is now complemented by my experience with this open-hardware community, which gave me the chance to interact with DAC from an entirely new perspective.

Open-hardware innovation of DAC can diversify our technological portfolio, produce faster learnings, and reduce costs — all widely shared goals for scaling DAC. Federal policy can not only harness but bolster the inclusive and collaborative power of open-hardware innovation by increasing funding and assistance opportunities available for such projects, broadening their eligibility criteria, and strengthening outreach efforts to better distribute application information.

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