According to a study by researchers from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of Oxford and five other institutions, revealed that capturing carbon dioxide and turning it into commercial products, such as fuels or construction materials, could become a new global industry.
This research was published in Nature, the world’s leading multidisciplinary science journal. It was found that on average each utilization pathway could use around 0.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere. (A tonne, or metric ton, is equivalent to 1,000 kilograms, and a gigatonne is 1 billion tonnes, or about 1.1 billion U.S. tons.)
Cameron Hepburn, one of the study’s lead authors, director of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and Environment, said “Greenhouse gas removal is essential to achieve net zero carbon emissions and stabilise the climate, and we haven’t reduced our emissions fast enough, so now we also need to start pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Governments and corporations are moving on this, but not quickly enough.
Critical to the success of these new technologies as mitigation strategies will be a careful analysis of their overall impact on the climate. Some are likely to be adopted quickly simply because of their attractive business models. For example, in certain kinds of plastic production, using carbon dioxide as a feedstock is a more profitable and environmentally cleaner production process than using conventional hydrocarbons, and it can displace up to three times as much carbon dioxide as it uses.
Another study from researchers at Stanford and SLAC are working on ways to convert waste carbon dioxide (CO2) into chemical feedstocks and fuels, turning a potent greenhouse gas into valuable products. They called electrochemical conversion. When powered by renewable energy sources, it could reduce levels of carbon dioxide in the air and store energy from these intermittent sources in a form that can be used any time.
To convert CO2 into these other products, they explained plants use solar energy to convert CO2 from the air into carbon in their tissues. Similarly, we want to develop technologies that use renewable energy, like solar or wind, to convert CO2 from industrial emissions into carbon-based products. One way to do this is called electrochemical CO2 reduction.
The copper acts as a catalyst, bringing the chemical ingredients together in a way that encourages them to react. Put very simply, the initial reaction strips an oxygen atom from CO2 to form carbon monoxide, or CO, which is an important industrial chemical in its own right. Then other electrochemical reactions turn CO into important molecules such as alcohols, fuels and other things.
So one approach would be to start with making high-value, high-volume products like ethylene, which is used to make alcohols, polyester, antifreeze, plastics and synthetic rubber. It’s a $230 billion global market today. Switching from fossil fuels to CO2 as a starting ingredient for ethylene in a process powered by renewables could potentially save the equivalent of about 860 million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year.
The same step-by-step approach applies to sources of CO2. Industry could initially use relatively pure CO2 emissions from cement plants, breweries or distilleries, for instance, and this would have the side benefit of decentralizing manufacturing. Every country could provide for itself, develop the technology it needs, and give its people a better quality of life. Therefore, these new processes have a chance to change the world.