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5 Products We Can Make From Carbon So It Doesn’t Go Into The Atmosphere

It looks like society won’t stop burning fossil fuels and belching CO2 into the air anytime soon. A second-best approach? Make useful things with it.

5 Products We Can Make From Carbon So It Doesn’t Go Into The Atmosphere
[Image: Smokestacks via Shutterstock]

For the world to keep burning fossil fuels without worsening climate change, there are two main options: Either capture CO2 and store it somewhere for a long time, or make it into another product.

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At the moment, the latter option may be more promising. Since 2008, governments have spent $25 billion funding carbon capture and storage projects (CCS), and so far they’ve gotten little out of it. There are only two working projects in the United States and they could be special cases rather than the start of a trend. Major CO2 producers–like coal power station operators–don’t want to meet the high costs of retrofitting their plants with expensive scrubbers.

That’s a big problem, because without CCS, we’ll have less headroom for dealing with climate change. The International Energy Agency says we can’t afford to burn more than one-third of today’s proven fossil fuel reserves if we don’t develop widespread CCS (that is, if we want to stay within “safe” limits for global warming).

But there is the second option, and that might be good for something. There are now a range of potential products that you can produce from CO2, and some of them could reduce the amount of gas going into the atmosphere. A recent competition organized by the Alberta-based Change and Emissions Management Corporation–a group funded by the region’s heaviest emitters–showcased 24 good ideas in its $35 million prize global challenge for “innovative carbon uses.” We picked out a few of them below.

Fuels

Seven winning teams produce fuels as the end product. For example, a group from McGill University is working on a technique to convert CO2 and waste water into chemicals like methanol, which can be used as a fuel. The process, which employs direct sunlight, is similar to photosynthesis and the aim is to integrate the system at source. “The system for the conversion process itself provides an elegant closed-loop solution for the use of CO2 and wastewater,” says CCEMC.

Wastewater treatment

A team from the University of British Columbia created an electrochemical cell that uses CO2 to desalinate wastewater and creates useful chemicals. “The novel technology uses CO2 to desalinate industrial wastewater, creating a smaller carbon footprint and an economical alternative to conventional desalination technology,” CCEMC says.

Concrete

Only the power industry has a bigger carbon footprint than the cement industry. But Solidia, a U.S. company, has a way to reduce that. It takes CO2 from cement plants, then uses it during the curing process for making concrete. It plans to start producing precast concrete products in a partnership with Lafarge, starting in 2015. The cement group hopes to reduce CO2 emissions by 70% compared to standard processes.

Fertilizer

Carbon Cycle, a U.K. company, uses CO2 to produce ammonium sulphate fertilizer and precipitated calcium carbonate, a product used in the paper industry. “Our process to make PCC and ammonium sulphate fertilizer will cost less to operate than current processes and has the key benefit in that it is carbon negative compared to existing methods of production,” says the company.

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Graphene

Graphene–strong, light and very conductive–is often called a “miracle material.” JRE Petroleum Services, in Canada, is working on a process to take CO2 and react it with graphite to form graphene. “This process binds the CO2 into the graphene structure, serving to create a new family of nanoparticle,” CCEMC says.

Of course, the best way to deal with climate change is not to produce any CO2 at all, which means moving to renewables for energy production. But while we still need fossil fuels, we might think of using CO2 usefully. While CCS remains expensive and unproven, these sorts of ideas may be our best bet.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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