Understanding Carbon Capture Technology & Its role in climate change.
Carbon capture? Haven’t trees been doing that for 370 million years?
Trees, other vegetation, and even rocks and bodies of water have been capturing carbon since they first appeared on the planet. However, something unfortunate started with the industrial evolution… We humans have been emitting more carbon than the natural sinks are able to handle, and we are now risking global catastrophe.
The obvious solution to this problem is to plant more trees. However, we simply can't grow enough trees to capture the necessary amount of CO2 that would help us meet the goals set by the Paris Agreement. We would have to cover the entire US with trees just to capture 10% of the CO2 we emit annually. There's just not enough room on this planet to have the space to plant the necessary number of trees. (Orwig & Ludacer, 2018).
As we advance as a society, we realized the destructive and unsustainable path that we are on. We are now determined to develop new technology to ensure our survival and create a better future. Enter: CARBON CAPTURE.
Carbon capture is a relatively new technology that has been gaining some serious traction over the past decade. The goal of carbon capture technology is to take environmentally harmful molecules of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or prevent them from entering the atmosphere. The CO2 is then converted into a state that does not hurt the environment (storage in rocks, for example), or turned into useful material (graphene, concrete, algae, etc).
The term “carbon capture” represents a range of technologies that either: 1- stop carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere at a point source, often by "filtering out" the carbon dioxide en route to the smokestack of a facility such as a power plant or factory, or 2- remove carbon dioxide that's already in the air through a process known as "direct air capture.", or DAC (Chung, 2019). Carbon captured material has been referred to as carbon negative or environmentally beneficial*, since it is removing carbon instead of emitting it, and it is helping the environment.
The easiest way to capture carbon (still not easy, though!) is through CO2 separation technologies, where CO2 is absorbed or separated from other gasses at a source of high concentration, such as at a smoke stack in an industrial setting or at the exhaust of a furnace. This type of carbon capturing removes carbon from a source before it would normally be emitted into the atmosphere. This process will prove to be essential for our transition to green energy, where we can retrofit high CO2 emitting processes with carbon capturing technology, while we are developing new emission-free processes.
Direct Air Capture (DAC) is a process that removes CO2 directly from the air- like trees, but on steroids! DAC is somewhat difficult because the concentration of CO2 in the general air is relatively low (compared to point source industrial emissions), at approximately 405-415ppm. However, 405-415ppm is very high if you are thinking in terms of atmospheric CO2, where pre-industrial levels have ranged between 172 – 300ppm for the past 1 million years! (ProOxygen, 2007-2019).
What can be done with captured carbon? Companies are currently finding creative ways to use captured carbon, such as producing: liquid fuel (Carbon Engineering in British Columbia- backed by Bill Gates), nanoparticles, plastics, and concrete (Carbon Upcycling Technologies in Alberta), algae (Pond Technologies in Ontario), and even consumer goods such as soap (CleanO2 in Alberta), creative everyday necessities (SkyBaron in the United States), wedding rings, jewelry and zero waste products (IPI Creations in Ontario), bracelets (Climeworks in Zurich), and more. Some captured carbon is even being pumped directly underground into geologic formations so that it can be stored virtually forever (Reykjavik Energy's CarbFix project in Iceland).
The ever-increasing abundance of CO2 in the atmosphere has been gaining a lot of attention lately, but did you know that our soils are becoming increasingly carbon deficient? Companies like Nori in Colorado are working to create the world’s first carbon dioxide removal marketplace. This is a platform that will allow anyone in the world to pay to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while supporting farmers who are working to remove CO2 from the air and sequester it into the soil via crops and other organic matter. Climeworks is doing something similar, where people can pay them to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and pump it into the geosphere. This is great for companies that are unable to remove CO2 themselves but want to show social responsibility.
As with any new, innovative technology (think solar panels 10 years ago), the cost of capturing carbon is not cheap, at an estimated $43 to $95 US per tonne for point source capture (Gillingham & Stock, 2018) and $100 to $150 per tonne of CO2 captured for DAC (Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering). However, it is rapidly becoming more affordable. As the uses for captured carbon expand, the price becomes more feasible. The act of capturing carbon alone will be an industry unto itself, as Nori and Climeworks are showing. Carbon capturing has the ability to disrupt numerous other industries by allowing any company to be able to partake in an environmentally friendly process, whether it be from sponsoring carbon removal from Direct Air Capture facilities or the Nori program, or by changing their product line to incorporate captured carbon material that can actually make their end product better, like with Carbon Upcycling Technologies graphene nano-particles, plastics, coatings, and concrete. From a 2016 McKinsey & Co. market assessment of the global markets, the market for carbon capture and utilization products was projected to be a $800 billion to $1.1 trillion US annual market by 2030, and a very valuable business opportunity (David, 2016) and (Bickis, 2017).
Carbon capture alone will not “solve” climate change, but it will help. One of the best aspects of this technology is that now anyone can help fight climate change by simply supporting carbon capturing or by purchasing products made with captured carbon materials. We need to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses that we emit, we need to pollute less, and we need to try to restore the natural equilibrium by working with nature instead of against it.
You can show your support for carbon capture and other innovative ways of helping our environment by sharing this blog post or checking out any of the companies mentioned above.
Some other great reading: How the World Passed a Carbon Threshold and Why It Matters, by Nicola Jones in 2017, published at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (Jones, 2017).
Carbon Negative - Carbon negative is the reduction of an entity’s carbon footprint to less than neutral, so that the entity in question has a net effect of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere rather than adding it (Rouse, 2013).
Environmentally beneficial – Products, processes, or actions for which their creation or act has a dual purpose: (1) to satisfy a need, (2) to benefit the natural environment. These products may be primarily created for economic reasons, yet they yield substantial environmental benefits through the material they are made from. The environment benefits when these products are used or bought, whether it be through indirect or direct means (ex/ planting of a tree, the purification of polluted air, or the cleaning of the oceans, etc.) – Brent Rouble, P.Geo, founder of IPI Creations
Bickis, I. (2017, March 13). CBC News. Retrieved from Companies seek to turn captured carbon into concrete, fish food and even toothpaste: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/carbon-capture-oilsands-calgary-niven-carboncure-conversion-enmax-xprize-1.4022226
Carbfix. Retrieved from https://www.carbfix.com/
Carbon Engineering. Retrieved from https://carbonengineering.com/
Carbon Upcycling Technologies. Retrieved from https://www.carbonupcycling.com/
Chung, E. (2019, September 02). CBC News. Retrieved from Carbon capture: What you need to know about catching CO2 to fight climate change: https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/carbon-capture-faq-1.5250140
CleanO2. Retrieved from https://www.cleano2.ca/
Climeworks. Retrieved from https://www.climeworks.com/
David, B. J. (2016, July 18). How Companies Can Profit from Carbon Reduction. (W. B. Radio, Interviewer) Retrieved from https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/companies-can-profit-carbon-reduction/
Gillingham, K., & Stock, J. H. (2018). The Cost of Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Journal of Economic Perspectives.
IPI Creations. Retrieved from https://ipicreations.com/
Jones, N. (2017). How the World Passed a Carbon Threshold and Why It Matters. Yale Environment 360, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
Nori. Retrieved from https://nori.com/
Orwig, J., & Ludacer, R. (2018, October 26). Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/so-much-co2-planting-trees-cant-save-us-2017-5
Pond Technologies. Retrieved from https://www.pondtech.com/
ProOxygen. (2007-2019). CO2-Earth. Retrieved from CO2, Past, Present, Future: https://www.co2.earth/co2-past-present-future-article
Rouse, M. (2013, December). WhatIs. Retrieved from https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/carbon-negative#targetText=Carbon%20negativity%20is%20the%20reduction,atmosphere%20rather%20than%20adding%20it.
Sky Baron. Retrieved from https://www.skybaron.eco/
THE LYNCEAN GROUP OF SAN DIEGO. (2019, February 19). Retrieved from Converting Carbon Dioxide into Useful Products: https://lynceans.org/all-posts/converting-carbon-dioxide-into-useful-products/