CO2 Emissions

Published on July 25th, 2011 | by Andrew


Forget Carbon Capture & Storage; Think Carbon Capture & Utilization

July 25th, 2011 by  

Rather than treating carbon dioxide as a waste, as is the case with high-profile Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology, energy, industrial and power industry participants, as well as people all over the world, would be better served investing in researching and developing Carbon Capture & Utilization (CCU) systems, according to a research and policy paper from The Centre for Low Carbon Futures (CLCF).

CCS has been the energy and power industries’ favored solution when it comes to climate change mitigation, but it’s turned out to be a straw man, as well as a seeming dead end. Nothing in the way of real-world CCS is even on the road to fruition, despite all the hype and touting energy and power industry proponents have put into it.

Plus, it’s become apparent that CCS has a number of significant drawbacks: high start-up costs; high energy inputs and costs, difficulty in finding suitable sites, as well as uncertainty regarding CO2 leakage into groundwater and soil, CLCF points out. Besides all that, the big power and energy industry backers of CCS aren’t even willing to invest in it without substantial government subsidies or other investment guarantees and financial assistance.

Though poorly understood and relatively unknown, CCU offers several distinct advantages and benefits over CCS. Like many really good ideas, it seems like a ‘no brainer,’ one that is readily apparent, at least once someone brings it forward. After all, wouldn’t it be better to use captured carbon dioxide to make other useful products rather than just storing it?

“The CCU process converts it into commercially viable products such as bio-oils, chemicals, fertilizers and fuels. These could replace fossil fuel based products further reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improve waste treatment,” CLCF explains.

Among the numerous and varied applications of CCU are:

  • Using waste CO2 as a chemical feedstock for the synthesis of other chemicals;
  • Using waste CO2 as a chemical source of carbon for mineral carbonation reactions to produce construction materials; and
  • Using waste CO2 as a nutrient and CO2 source to make algae grow and supply fuels and chemicals.

Moreover, CCU can payback investments in relatively short periods of time, according to the report, entitled “Carbon Capture and Utilisation in the green economy: Using CO2 to manufacture fuel, chemicals and material.”

The hurdle for CCU at the moment is that it is still in the research and development phase. It has not been commercialized on a large scale yet, and greater investment is required to make it a reality, the CLCF notes.

In its policy briefing paper, the CLCF puts forward a number of “concrete” policy recommendations that could remedy the situation. While focused on the UK, they are applicable to any country, and several are international, or supranational, in nature. Among these are:

  • Formation of a strategic policy group charged with increasing investor awareness of the potential benefits of CCU, thereby bringing barriers down;
  • Considering CCU whenever and wherever CCS is proposed;
  • Establishment of an international agreement on CCU through the International Energy Agency (IEA);
  • Creation of a CCU Global Technology Roadmap; and
  • Inclusion of CCU in the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Best Practices for greenhouse gas accounting for national greenhouse gas inventories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

* Photo courtesy of NASA’s Global Climate Change website.

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About the Author

I've been reporting and writing on a wide range of topics at the nexus of economics, technology, ecology/environment and society for some five years now. Whether in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East, issues related to these broad topical areas pose tremendous opportunities, as well as challenges, and define the quality of our lives, as well as our relationship to the natural environment.

  • Askgerbil Now

    CO2 capture is done on a commercial scale in a number of industries.
    It is scrubbed from raw natural gas to make the gas “pipeline quality”. It is also separated from hydrogen in steam reforming of natural gas by fertiliser manufacturers.

    A number of commercial uses of CO2 exist and new ones are emerging. Algae farming needs large volumes of concentrated CO2. One commercial operator recently discovered that algae oil is far more valuable when marketed as nutrient supplements rather than biodiesel.

    “Indicative wholesale prices for the Chlorella and B-Carotene are currently $16,000 and up to $90,000 per tonne, respectively. The algae is 100% used as the product. A healthy gross margin on revenue is anticipated as capital costs are expected to be in the vicinity of $7,000 per tonne.” (Algae.Tec)

  • Ecomike

    One company that I know of has a near commercial CCU process ready to go that converts CO2 into formic acid with a substantially lower energy input than the current process for making formic acid. It is a new generation of organic electrolytic reactor. They received their first patent this year (2012), and are building a pilot plant at a Cement plant in Canada. The cement plant is a Lafarge plant. Here is the story:

  • Pingback: Countries with Climate Policy TLC Gain Competitive Edge | CleanTechnica()

  • douglas prince

    What I’d like to know is how the hell anyone can say CCU has a relatively short payback time for investors when the whole concept is still in the R&D phase?
    That’s just a dumbass statement…

  • Wilmot McCutchen

    CCU, as Brian points out, takes energy. Burning more fossil fuels to produce that energy creates CO2 — more than is converted into useful products. Wind and solar, however, could do this job during the times when they are curtailed. Wind has trouble selling power into the grid at night (when wind is most available) because there is plenty of power already available in the spinning reserve. A hybrid power system, using wind to convert the CO2 from fossil fuel generation, would give wind a path to wide deployment, whereas right now wind is going to waste because of a fundamentally wrong business model of selling power into the grid at night, when nobody is buying.

  • Brian

    This doesn’t make any mention of the fact the turning carbon dioxide into things like fuels, chemical products, and polymers requires more energy than was present in the coal to begin with. This is like a coal to liquid fuels program only more complicated and with a lower energy return.

    The only viable ways of making this work that I am aware of are to use solar (either photovoltaic, thermal), algea based solar, or nuclear power to run the CO2 conversion process. With solar and nuclear it would be more cost effective to directly replace coal in the power grid. Algea grows better in a high CO2 atmosphere and it is possible it could be made cost effective but would require some form of capture and transport and large areas which might be better used for PV farms.

  • Anonymous

    We have no effective and efficient method to capture the CO2 coming from fossil fuel plants.

    Why don’t we just leave all that carbon underground?

    We can power transportation and make our electricity without fossil fuels. Those are technologies in hand. Let’s just get busy and build them out.

    Doesn’t it make sense to just not make the mess to start with as opposed to looking for cute ways to clean it up?

    • Wilmot McCutchen

      @Bob Wallace — I agree with you that CO2 capture is not feasible at utility scale using chemicals mixed in with flue gas. This would also double the fresh water consumption of power plants, at a time when water supplies are stressed. I would add that the sequestration element of CCS has been called by prominent petroleum engineering professors “a profoundly non-feasible option for the management of CO2 emissions” and dangerous to the groundwater. I see no other purpose to CCS than to have the taxpayers pay for oil companies’ enhanced oil recovery (EOR) operations.

      But I do not agree with your statement that “we can power transportation and make our electricity without fossil fuels. Those are technologies in hand.” What technologies?

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