In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report that detailed the likely consequences that would follow from a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels. The science is clear. Our high-carbon economy’s participating institutions no longer have a choice between economic growth and corporate social responsibility. Immediate action must be taken to balance these spheres, lest the living conditions of future generations be radically compromised. Decarbonization presents itself as the only meaningful solution to the consequences of global warming, which continue to push temperatures closer and closer to the climate-apocalypse threshold. That is, a complete purging of CO2 emissions from our energy sector is fundamentally necessary to achieve a sustainable future.
Fortunately, companies are enacting meaningful change in order to actualize the stabilization protocols outlined by climate scientists. With mounting interest in carbon capture and storage technologies, there remains a goal toward which climate advocates can direct their efforts, and hope that we might achieve a deep reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
What exactly is carbon capture and storage?
Early developments in CCS technology ensued from a commonsensical, though delayed, realization: there aren’t sufficient green alternatives eligible to replace fossil fuels in every corner of our global energy system. It would be far less feasible to develop a comprehensive fossil fuel elimination plan than it would be to develop a technology intended to mitigate existing carbon dioxide emissions in our atmosphere. The earliest CCS technology involved the filtration of CO2 out of a gas stream emitted during the burning of fossil fuels. Following this filtration, the CO2 was safely captured, transported, and stored beneath the earth’s surface. And though this might sound like an oversimplification of a complex technology, CCS really only consists of those three processes: capture, transport, and storage. As CCS advanced, the first “capture” process evolved into two distinct flavors of technology: pre-combustion and post-combustion.
In pre-combustion carbon capture, the traditional burning of fossil fuels is disrupted by a gas produced by a combination of coal and oxygen. When met with water, the gas reacts and yields CO2 that can be captured efficiently, and hydrogen that later aids in the production of electricity. In post-combustion capture, fossil fuels are burned as they traditionally would, but the emissions pass through an absorber column filled with a solvent that acts as a CO2 super-absorber. Carbon dioxide is prevented from entering the atmosphere and is confronted instead by a stream of ultra-hot steam, which separates the CO2 from the solvent. In this form, the CO2 is captured safely. And like most other waste products that yield no immediate utility, carbon, following its capture, finds itself in a pit deep beneath the earth’s surface.
Disadvantages and Challenges
Worst among the challenges that CCS innovators face when entering the energy sector is the complexity of its industrial processes. Introducing CCS to this kind of a system does not come without significant increases in cost, especially considering the amount of excess energy required to catalyze most capture technologies. When these changes occur, commodity products get less competitive, making the prospect of transition extremely unattractive to businesses and the industrial sector at large.
There is also little conclusive research that points to the absolute security of underground carbon dioxide storage. Many scientists advise that storage sites be closely monitored until a complete detoxification of the area becomes possible. Because the gas is highly toxic, leakages in high quantity at such sites would render the air largely unbreathable.
It’s not challenging to assess the relative weight of these disadvantages when stacked up against the possibility of deep decarbonization. The advantages associated with a successful CCS technology underlie each of those hard to swallow (yet increasingly-frequent) conversations surrounding global climate change. If we don’t eliminate toxic carbon emissions from our energy sector, we run the risk of irreversibly damaging our ecosystem.
Carbon Capture Companies
Fortunately, many innovators are competing with novel products lines developed from the recycled carbon emissions themselves. Repurposing and commercializing CO2 minimizes the risk associated with underground storage and aids in offsetting the unattractive costs bound to most capture processes.
Apporv Sinha, founder and CEO of Carbon Upcycling, emphasizes the potential of carbon dioxide when contextualized within a closed recycling loop. Rather than villainize it, Carbon Upcycling argues on behalf of the gas’s reuse, citing its massively under-credited utility. With a technology that chemically absorbs and stabilizes CO2 in the presence of low cost powders, like fly ash and graphite, the startup is able to repurpose the gas as an efficiency enhancer for commercial products. The startup boasts applications in concrete, plastics and pharmaceutical drug delivery. Currently, Carbon Upcycling offers a coating intended to protect concrete buildings from corrosion. This product is a beacon of green light in an industry known for its carbon-intensive solutions. Also available from Carbon Upcycling Technology is a compressive strength enhancer for concrete, composed of captured CO2 and fly ash.
Driven by the same emissions-reducing initiative, the founders of Opus 12 developed a technology with a practical functionality not unlike the mechanisms at work within a plant during photosynthesis. Just as a plant works hard to convert carbon dioxide, solar energy, and water into oxygen and food, Opus 12 designed a technology that converts a combination of CO2 emissions, electricity and water into valuable chemical compounds. Unlike the output of trees, however, one single Opus 12 unit works at impressive speed, capturing carbon emissions at a rate comparable to 37,000 trees. The resulting chemical compounds also provide industries with cost competitive alternatives to products which are traditionally carbon-intensive in their creation. For example, Opus 12 boasts an ethylene production process that sequesters three tons of carbon dioxide per ton of ethylene produced. As the fundamental building block of everyday plastics, Opus 12 technology could efficiently yield carbon-negative plastic products in mass.
Much like the technology at Opus 12, the founders of Cemvita Factory developed a reactor capable of converting carbon dioxide, water and electricity into nutrients. Their efforts, however, are directed primarily at deep space exploration and resource utilization on Mars. Rather than attaching their reactors to significant fossil fuel emitters here on earth, Cemvita Factory aims to utilize the air breathed by astronauts and the CO2-rich atmosphere of Mars to create the food necessary to sustain life in the terraformation on Mars. Cemvita Factory are currently targeting NASA contractors and private space companies to develop and implement their technology.
Unlocking the future of CCS technologies only requires the monitoring of comparable green industries, like wind and solar power. As renewable energy moved further away from early development and closer to commercialization, cost efficiency followed. The possibility of widespread deployment of carbon capture storage depends almost entirely upon its cost. And fluctuations in cost depend almost entirely upon developments in technology. So long as CCS is necessary for the transition to a zero-carbon economy, their technologies and resulting products will move toward efficiency, and down the cost curve. Innovating on the basis of profitability and novel revenue streams are promising first steps toward the cooperation of businesses, climate advocates, and the industrial sector.