Five ways CO₂ can benefit the planet

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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[MHI]

Carbon dioxide is commonly seen as having a negative impact. After all, it is the main driver of climate change and something that needs to be reduced if we are to hit the Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming within the desired range of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Makoto Susaki, is a Senior Vice President and CTO at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Engineering and Head of CCUS Business Taskforce at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

It follows, that without capturing CO2 from industrial processes or the atmosphere, achieving a carbon-neutral world at a reasonable cost by 2050 will be very difficult in certain hard-to-abate sectors such as steel and cement manufacturing or marine/air transportation.

Interestingly, captured CO2 combined with renewable energy inputs, heat and hydrogen can be converted into valuable commodities. It will make industrial products and chemicals carbon neutral or even effectively carbon negative due to the CO2 being stored within the product itself (e.g. cement, etc).

From manufacturing to energy production, CO₂ has multiple positive uses as a resource. Nowhere is this more evident than in the critical need for dry ice − the solid form of CO₂ − for the transport of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which needs to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius almost until the time it is injected.

Such is the anticipated demand that some logistics firms are already producing their own dry ice to ensure a steady supply.

Here are four other creative ways to use carbon.

  1. Textiles, baubles and bubbles

There is tremendous scope for innovation around carbon capture and storage (CCS), which is beginning to play a role in the manufacture of a number of everyday items.

In 2016, energy company NRG created a sneaker, 75% of which is made from materials produced from power plant emissions, to showcase its Carbon XPrize, which encourages the development of breakthrough technologies that turn emissions into usable products.

Carbon Upcycling Technologies (CUT), a Canadian start-up, combines CO₂ emissions and feedstock to create everything from bioplastics to carbon-captured crayons and jewelry. Its largest reactor is producing eight metric tons of material a day.

There’s even a carbon capture system helping to put the bubbles in beer, by recapturing the CO₂ released during the fermentation of hops. The CO₂ Craft Brewery Recovery System traps about five metric tons of carbon dioxide per month, enough for a brewery that generates up to about 60,000 barrels per year.

  1. Refashioning concrete

Many hope that socio-economic recovery from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to growth in sustainable infrastructure development − but concrete, a key building material, is also a heavy polluter. Cement, one of its primary ingredients, is responsible for 8% of global CO₂ emissions.

Finding viable low-carbon alternatives could make a huge difference when it comes to building in a more sustainable way.

MHI Engineering has announced its participation in a feasibility study to utilize CCS in cement production at the Lehigh Cement Plant in Edmonton, Canada. This will be the first such study in the North American market and is estimated to capture about 600,000 metric tons of CO₂ annually.

Carbon capture that creates new building materials could make infrastructure more sustainable.

Not only can CCS take carbon out of the emissions generated by cement production, it can be put to work afterwards. For example, it can be injected into concrete to reinforce it, while also creating a permanent CO₂ repository.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have developed a closed-loop process that involves capturing carbon from power plant smokestacks and using it to create a new building material − CO2NCRETE.

Scaling up the use of such materials will enable a sea-change in construction activity, according to a report from the Chatham House think tank, which notes that novel types of cement alone could allow emissions reductions of up to 90% in the building sector.

  1. Fueling a marine revolution

Asia, and especially China, sits at the heart of global manufacturing, and products made in these countries are invariably moved around the world by freight vessels. The shipping industry carries over 80% of global trade and is taking steps to reduce its own emissions, aiming to halve CO₂ emissions by 2050. This is another area of the global economy that could benefit from carbon capture and put CO₂ to good use.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) Group is developing a carbon capture unit for maritime use, where carbon will be removed from marine exhaust gases and stored in tanks. It could then be unloaded and converted into synthetic fuels, like methane or methanol, for future use.

Mitsubishi Power has already synthesized methanol by using captured CO₂ from power plant emissions and hydrogen from excess renewable energy sources. Mitsubishi Power engineer Florian Möllenbruck says this research will help to reduce the use of fossil fuels for transport, as well as storing surplus renewable energy that might otherwise be lost.

  1. Food for thought

It’s not just our energy needs, but our dietary ones that could be met by inventive uses for captured carbon. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the British livestock industry uses an area the size of the county of Yorkshire − at 12,000 km² one of the largest regions in the UK − to produce the soy used in animal feed. This has a devastating impact on biodiversity that’s echoed around the world.

Drax power station, which sits in Yorkshire, is a former coal-fired plant that now generates electricity from sustainable biomass. MHI Engineering has engaged in the testing with a bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) pilot facility at Drax Power Station. Once BECCS is scaled up, Drax could deliver millions of tons of negative emissions annually − a significant proportion of the negative emissions the UK needs to reach its 2050 net-zero goal.

One scheme being tested has already received substantial funding from the British government. A carbon recycling project will see captured CO₂ used to generate single-cell proteins, which in turn can be used in animal feed. The aim is to reduce the UK’s reliance on complex supply chains and transform the country’s food production system.

Globally, the world emits over 36 billion metric tons of CO2 every year. Capturing and converting those emissions into products that benefit the economy and the environment will bring us closer to reaching our decarbonization goals.

  1. Towards a carbon neutral world

As described in the EU Commission’s long-term vision for climate neutrality (“A Clean Planet for all – A European strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy”[1]), CCS/CCUS is one of the seven main strategic building blocks identified by the EU to tackle climate change and decarbonise industry. This is particularly true in hard-to-abate sectors where direct electrification will either be too costly or too technically difficult to implement at scale.

CCS even has the potential to deliver negative emissions if combined with the use of biomass and renewable electricity, by storing the carbon in long-lasting materials such as concrete. The CO₂ can also simply be converted in a carbon-neutral process by making e-fuels (with CO2 and green hydrogen), and capturing the carbon once again as the e-fuels are combusted or through direct air capture, thereby creating circular economies for carbon.

This technology exists today and can be implemented economically for immediate emission reductions in a range of sectors and processes. However, the current focus has largely been on the “electrification first” principle and renewable energies, while many industry sectors are waiting for regulatory clarity and support on the exact role that the EU wants this important technology to play in the short-to-medium term, and how it will support the deployment of the necessary infrastructure for CO₂ value chain.

Once we establish the infrastructure, it is also important to have a physical and digital platform, such as CO₂NNEX™ we are developing, which enables us to connect each player along the value chain, share information easily, visualize how CO₂ moves through the supply chain and provide traceability.

[1] https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52018DC0773&from=EN

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