This story by Ama Lorenz is published in THE BEAM #13.
Avoiding the worst effects of the climate emergency is a hugely complex problem. Where can we store all the carbon we have been blowing into the atmosphere for years? ‘Just capture it, recycle or bury…’ Carbon Management is the popular magic word. But new technologies like carbon capture also show that there is no silver bullet.
Do you know the quote: ‘Most problems arise when they are solved’? One of the main causes of climate change, CO₂ is a powerful problem – and it is getting worse. To offset one ton of CO₂ emissions alone, you would have to plant 80 trees. According to a forecast on global CO₂ emissions, the amount will rise to as much as 43.1 billion tonnes in the next 30 years – so we would need 3,448,000,000,000 trees. Sounds unfeasible, and it probably is.
But what if, statistically speaking, each of us didn’t have to plant 35 trees? What if we didn’t have to decide in the future whether to drastically change our CO₂-heavy lifestyle or to protect our environment and still be profitable?
Wind turbines and solar panels are spreading fast, but not fast enough to offset our CO2 emission rate and avert the worst consequences of climate change. And so it is appealing to put the cart before the horse. Not to tackle the cause, i.e. the use of fossil fuels, for example, but fixate on its consequences.
For decades, researchers have been looking for ways to remove the dangerous carbon from the chimneys of tens of thousands of fossil fuel power plants and from the atmosphere. The promising technologies currently on everyone’s lips range from “filtering out” the carbon dioxide on its way to the smokestack of a power plant or factory to removing the carbon dioxide that is already in the air, a process called “direct air capture.”
But what happens to the carbon after it has been captured or filtered? It can either be permanently stored underground or converted into a carbon-containing product and be put back into the commodity cycle. And, in a way, that could permanently change the global economy.
The magic of carbon capture and storage (CCS)
The Global CCS Institute’s new climate report has analysed the continued growth of carbon capture and storage (CCS) worldwide. According to the report, in 2021 the total capacity of the CCS project pipeline increased for the fourth consecutive year by almost a third compared to the previous year. CCS is recognised by experts as an essential element in achieving global climate protection goals. However, as is so often the case, new technologies such as CCS are primarily driven by economic interests. It is therefore not surprising that many CCS projects favor the storage of carbon dioxide, mostly in order to squeeze more oil out of aging wells, and then store the carbon underground in air pockets in the porous rock of depleted wells. “Cap rock” on top to prevent spillage – problem solved. See Quest, an oil sands project operated by Shell Canada.
But what was that again about the problem and the solution? We are already dumping pollutants into groundwater, burying nuclear waste and drilling holes in the deep sea, “fracking” our way into infinite depths. The consequences are uncertain and threatening.
But it can also be done quite differently. The goal of Canada’s InnoTech – Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre (Barcode) on the outskirts of Calgary is not just to capture and “bury” harmful greenhouse gas emissions, but to find a way to turn carbon dioxide into money. The $20 million center is a testing ground for cutting-edge technologies that can turn carbon dioxide gases into so-called CO₂-negative products like bio-fuel, nutritious protein, bio-plastics, nutrients for fish, nano-fibers and all the way to alcohol and furniture.
InnoTech allows companies from all over the world to test their technology in a ready-to-use industrial facility and, according to official figures, is one of the few centres in the world where technologies for carbon conversion into consumer goods, building materials or even pharmaceutical drugs can be tested on this scale.
“All these companies have already proven that their technology works. Now they are proving that it works on a commercial scale,” said Deron Bilous, Alberta’s then Minister of Economic Development and Trade, at the centre’s inauguration in 2018. A lot has happened since then. In 2021 alone, 71 new CCS plants were planned. This brings the total number of commercial CCS plants worldwide to 135, with 27 fully operational, four under construction and 102 under development.
North America is the world leader in CCS deployment. This is mainly due to the tax credits in place there, with a tax credit for CCS investments also coming into effect in the Canadian budget from 2022. But stronger climate commitments – including the US rejoining the Paris Agreement – and the expected increase in demand for low-carbon energy products also pay into this.
By September 2020, the CO₂ capture capacity of all CCS plants under development has increased from 75 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) to 111 Mtpa – almost half more than in 2020. This is an impressive amount of material that could be used by a wide range of economic sectors.
Among the companies using the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre are winners and finalists in the International Carbon XPrize, a high-stakes competition to convert carbon dioxide emissions from the energy industry into usable products.
One of the two main winners of this year’s prize is a Canadian company from tranquil Nova Scotia, which secured a multi-million dollar prize ahead of innovations such as using photosynthesis to convert carbon and converting acid rock and CO₂ emissions into a stable substance. Similarly to the other award winner, Los Angeles-based UCLA CarbonBuilt, CarbonCure Technologies injects carbon dioxide into concrete to make it harder while reducing its CO₂ footprint. After injection, the CO₂ undergoes a mineralisation process and is permanently bound. This results in economic and climatic benefits for concrete producers – a real win-win situation.
“Annually, buildings account for 40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the global building stock is expected to double by 2060,” says Marcius Extavour, Executive Director of Carbon XPrize.
The use of CO₂ in concrete is now expected to become a $400 billion market. CarbonCure concrete is already used in more than 695 systems across 31 countries around the world.
If concrete isn’t your thing, you might enjoy some CO₂-containing furniture – or something high-prozentual.
The start-up Air Company began selling its spirits to bars and restaurants in New York City in November. The CO₂ stock used to make their vodka comes mainly from beverage manufacturing plants that produce waste gases during fermentation. Instead of escaping into the air, the molecules now end up in the vodka bottles.
Drinking to combat climate change might be an appealing cause on its own for some, but vodka is supposed to be just the beginning of Gregory Constantine, the company’s CEO, has his way. The team hopes that by selling a consumer product, it will be able to expand its pilot alcohol production operation so that the company could branch into alternative fuels, chemicals for plastic production or other markets.
All that glitters is not gold
The potential global market for waste CO₂ products could be worth $5.9 trillion a year, according to Carbon180, a non-profit organisation based in Oakland, California. Cement, plastics and fuels account for most of this potential market, while consumer goods are likely to account for only a tiny fraction: less than 1 per cent. So there is still a lot of room for improvement.
You can already buy watches, pens or incense holders made from carbon-absorbing materials. Two other start-ups, Carbon Upcycling Technologies and Sky Baron, have recently launched a range of such products, and jewelry companies are increasingly selling lab-grown diamonds made by exposing carbon to high pressure and chemical fumes; the result is stones that sparkle just as brightly but are much cheaper than natural diamonds.
For any developer in this growing industry, simply developing and scaling technologies is not the only challenge. Companies also need to figure out how to do this without leaving a significant environmental footprint themselves. Many factors determine a product’s cradle-to-grave emissions, and not all new technology “hype” fully takes these into account. For example, carbon captured from chimneys is usually captured and cleaned before being used for other purposes. This process can consume large amounts of electricity and water, thus driving up costs and emissions, especially if the electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Carbon is not necessarily free in terms of its environmental impact.
The lifespan of a product also makes a big difference. Plastic polymers used for packaging and building materials, for example, can sequesterCO₂ longer than biofuels, which immediately release CO₂ back into the air when burned in engines. Nevertheless, even short-lived products can benefit the environment if they displace those made from fossil fuels. Whether this will be the case remains an open question for both industry developers and us, the consumers.
Incidentally, CarbonCure founder Rob Niven thinks the Carbon XPrize was worth the three rounds over a 54-month period and the effort the company put in to win. The company plans to use the prize money to achieve its own corporate goal of reducing 500 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually by 2030; that would be like taking 100 million cars off the road. The company also plans to invest some of its money in social justice initiatives. A good example of saving the climate and doing good for society.
Of course, carbon capture alone won’t solve the problem – we also need to stop using fossil fuels, use value-added products from these new technologies and restore nature’s ability to remove carbon from the air – plant trees after all, for example. That said, using carbon capture in the circular economy can be an important part of the solution.
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