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Five better things to do with carbon dioxide

Instead of regarding carbon dioxide as a threat, we should realise it’s an essential element for almost all products used by mankind. To be able to reach the necessary climate targets, carbon dioxide needs to be captured, used and re-used.

Carbon-based molecules are found in almost all the materials we use in our daily lives. Fuels, plastics, packaging, furniture, clothing and even pharmaceuticals and food supplements are based on carbon as a feedstock. Today almost all the needed carbon from these products comes from fossil oil and gas and most of it is at some point released into the atmosphere in the form of CO2, carbon dioxide, with well-known consequences for the climate and living conditions on earth.

But releasing carbon dioxide into thin air is not only bad for the climate, it’s also a big waste. For the carbon could be captured from the air and used again to manufacture new products. And the best thing is: it’s already being done!

Norway is a leading country for, CCS, the term for capturing and storing carbon dioxide deep underground. But Norway is also the base for the Nordic Consortium for CO2 Conversion (NordCO2). This consortium of universities in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland is focusing on CCU, which means capturing carbon and then using it to make new substances and materials.

Ainara Nova, Research Professor at the Centre for Materials Science and Nanotechnology, and Principal investigator at the Hylleraas Centre at the University of Oslo in Norway is leading NordCO2:

“To capture the carbon dioxide and store it underground is necessary and it will be important until we find cleaner energy sources. But it is also costly and you don’t get anything back. So it’s better to make use of the carbon and convert it into fuels and chemicals, this way closing the cycle. And as we need to stop using fossil carbon this is a way to find an alternative source of carbon for the products we need,” Nova says.

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A compound relatively easy to make from carbon dioxide is methanol. It only takes combining carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen (H2) , where the hydrogen is made from renewable electricity and water. Methanol is also great because it is an intermediate compound that can be converted further into other chemicals or fuels.

“There is currently a lot of research on how to make more complex molecules from methanol, such as green diesel or other fuels, also called e-fuels, in the most energy efficient way. Then we can also produce the chemicals we need, because the industry already knows how to go from fuels to chemicals again and is already ready for that. So this is a promising strategy,” she says.

The trick, and the challenge, is to be able to do this transformation in a way that doesn’t demand too much energy and of course to use fossil-free energy. But already today there are commercial projects ongoing.

One example is Vattenfall that is working on several partnership projects  in Sweden to capture CO2 and combine with hydrogen to produce electrofuels for airplanes. But things are happening in many places all over the world.

“In Iceland industries are already capturing CO2 and forming methanol in large amounts. They are also exporting the technology to other countries. Also in other places in Europe as well as in China there are different plans and projects to implement these technologies. There is also research being done on solid materials. For example for making carbon fiber and also concrete for construction projects.”

But carbon capture alone will not solve the climate problem. Fossil fuels need to go.

“If we continue like today, carbon capturing will never be able to lower CO2 emissions to the level required to halt the climate change. So in the long term we also need to stop using fossil fuels.”

Three main positive effects of CCU: (

  • It contributes to reaching global climate goals
  • It broadens the carbon feedstock base needed for growing societies.
  • It enables the development of a circular carbon economy.

Five better things do with carbon dioxide

Methanol: Methanol is a versatile chemical used in various industries, including as a fuel additive, solvent, and feedstock for the production of other chemicals.

Polymers and plastics: CO2 can be polymerized into plastics and polymers, offering a sustainable alternative to traditional fossil fuel-derived plastics. These CO2-based polymers can be used in packaging, construction materials, and other applications.

Synthetic fuels: CO2 can be converted into synthetic fuels such as methane, diesel, or jet fuel and used as renewable alternatives to fossil fuels in transportation and energy generation.

Carbonate minerals: CO2 can be mineralized with minerals such as calcium or magnesium to form stable carbonate minerals that can be used in construction materials such as concrete, providing a long-term storage solution.

Food: Some microbes can use CO2 from the air to produce protein. This can be turned into air derived organic crop nutrients, fish food or even meat. The technology was first discovered by NASA who looked for a way to produce astronaut food onboard space crafts.

See also

Protester holding a sign saying "Just Transition. Decarbonisation." at the Melbourne Global climate strike on 20 September, 2019.
Takver from Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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