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Carbon capture: Not just a back-up solution, but a valuable income stream…

By Dr Jim Ormond and Jane Fiona Cumming

82% of the world’s energy supply is derived from fossil fuels and overall, energy demand is expected to grow 37% by 2040. So it appears increasingly unlikely that we will reduce the volume of greenhouse gas emissions we generate in time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

There is an urgent need for a viable back-up solution.

The back-up solution

One option is to capture and then store carbon, removing it from the atmosphere and effectively reducing our global footprint. At a national scale, carbon capture and storage (CCS), typically in underground reservoirs, is becoming an increasingly attractive option. In Europe and North America various CCS pilots are under way (e.g. the White Rose plant in Yorkshire and CCS gas-fired power plant in Peterhead). The International Energy Agency has calculated that CCS technology, applied at 3,000 plants around the world, is the most cost-effective way of delivering around a fifth of the CO reductions required.

Yet, seen from this angle, CCS is a pragmatist’s, perhaps even a defeatist’s, choice. We resign ourselves to continuing to emit CO2, simply removing the gas from the atmosphere and storing it where it can do no harm.

Transforming the back-up solution

However, there are other technologies which are attempting to repurpose carbon and to view the capturing of CO2 as a valuable asset or resource. For instance:

  1. Novomer has developed catalysts to convert CO2 into polymers and plastics
  2. Calera is working to turning CO2 emissions into calcium carbonate cement  products
  3. Joule is using CO2 as a feed-stock for bacteria that produce ethanol and diesel
  4. Skyonic turns CO2 into construction materials and even baking soda
  5. Liquid Light uses electricity and catalysts to convert CO2 into bottles and fibres
  6. Covestro has talked of capturing CO2 and using it to make polymers in everyday office chairs
  7. Arizona State University has developed a CO2 ‘ion-exchange’ resin substance.

Whilst still in their infancy, these technologies represent hugely important advances in providing transformational ‘back-up’ solutions. They can ensure that we are able to avoid the worst climate change impacts. (even if we do not manage to sufficiently reduce our carbon emissions in time). They also help to reposition the capture of carbon as an income stream rather than a mitigation measure.

To transform these emerging technologies from start-ups to global technology providers we need a consistent price for carbon. It should value the economic costs (‘externalities’) that will arise because of climate change as well as the economic savings these technologies will offer by removing carbon.

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