Eventually, the world needs to find a way to dispose of its rapidly accumulating carbon dioxide emissions. Produced majorly as a byproduct of combustion, carbon dioxide is toxic, and while many technologies currently exist to mop up the global concentration of carbon, some scientists (and key stakeholders) say that these technologies are not enough.
The shortage of sustainable tech to foster what is now a global campaign against carbon accumulation presents an opportunity for innovation piggybacked on technology to thrive. Already, a few firms and individuals have taken to this charge and are delivering solutions well worth a mention.
Reinventing A Natural Process
Trees and green vegetation take up carbon dioxide, a widespread form of carbon in our biosphere. The problem with this natural self-cleansing mechanism is that the rate of cleanup possible from planting trees alone pales in comparison to the rate of accumulation. In fact, one study found that “this strategy of sequestering carbon is not a viable alternative to aggressive emission reductions.” So why not build artificial trees that can take up carbon dioxide just as trees do?
Well, that technology currently exists, and Yale E360 notes that deployment is already well underway in locations ranging from Switzerland to Phoenix. Artificial trees, unlike actual trees, do not need to grow. Implementation is a faster process, and the entire carbon capture mechanism could be highly efficient. The downside, however, is that artificial trees are likely to be expensive. Perhaps more importantly, just like many other carbon capture techniques, there’s no financial incentive for deployment. However, all that could change if carbon dioxide were commoditized.
Carbon As A Prized Commodity
In 2018, the U.S. Department Of Energy granted funding for testing of 12 sustainable carbon capture and utilization technologies as part of its $1.4 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act project. These technologies, many of which focus on converting carbon dioxide into a “viable product,” represent a deliberate approach by innovators to place a commercial value on carbon dioxide.
Alcoa Inc., Calera Corporation, Gas Technology Institute and Novomer Inc, all recipients of the award, will debut technologies that summarily use an efficient mechanism to “repurpose” carbon dioxide into a beneficial product. Calera Corporation, for instance, plans to mineralize captured carbon dioxide into carbonates that would then be converted into materials for the construction industry. The process for this conversion is based on a membrane electrolysis technique.
Aside from the prospect of finally “putting carbon dioxide to good use,” I believe the case of the $1.4 billion ARRA project and its recipients emphasizes the fact that although carbon dioxide has yet to attain the status of a sought-after commodity, a substantial financial incentive exists for those willing to work on methods that remove it from the biosphere. As the world’s carbon footprint continues to escalate, I anticipate that this incentive will only grow larger.
Carbon Capture As A ‘Billion-Dollar Idea’
That’s already evident in the number and extent of investments in the sector. In 2009, Bill Gates and Norman Murray Edwards bankrolled the establishment of Carbon Engineering. The company was the brainchild of David Keith, a Harvard physicist, and the goal, like that of the many other startups we’ve covered, was simple: Capture carbon dioxide, and convert it into something useful. Again, as was the case with Calera Corporation, the process of conversion involves a bit of electrolysis. Unlike Calera, however, the expected end product is an array of hydrocarbons, which are what modern-day combustion engines run on.
This characteristic makes the Carbon Engineering idea potentially revolutionary. Not only could it rid the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, but it could also regenerate the source material of toxic carbon. If and when technologies like these gain full traction, they could practically create an endless loop where carbon is used, captured and reused, as opposed to the existing order, where carbon is used and released as toxic byproducts that build up over time.
Carbon Engineering is already well on its way to making this prospect a reality. The company just recently announced its Air to Fuels (A2F) process, which captures carbon dioxide and then combines it with hydrogen to produce petrol and diesel. Tentatively, not only could it get paid for cleaning up carbon, but it could also create one of the world’s most sought-after commodities.
In summary, what does the future of carbon capture look like? It’s all set and ready for a revolutionary breakthrough. With the current pace of things, I expect that this breakthrough will manifest sooner rather than later. Technology in this sector has the ability to be adapted on a wide scale if we can grasp efficiency and feasibility. It could provide future opportunities and put carbon to good use instead of allowing it to cause harm. One challenge is the cost of creating the technology, but innovation and competition are at the forefront, which I believe will ensure that prices and efficiency can increase.