8 min. read

To limit global warming as much as possible, organisations and governments are committed to various CO2 reduction objectives. These objectives are to be reached through different levers: new regulations and carbon taxation systems, energy efficiency technologies, consumption reduction targets, and the use of more sustainable energy sources. However, due to the high carbon concentrations level already reached (414 ppm in May 2019), these measures will not be enough to stay under a maximum of +2°C increase target. Carbon will also need to be removed from the atmosphere [1].

Capturing carbon is complex and energy intensive since CO2 is very diluted in the air (only 0.004% of the air we inhale). Despite this, scientists and companies are currently developing numerous techniques, namely CO2 capture, and CO2 storage (CCS) and CO2 use (CCU). In this White Paper, we give an overview of the technologies being commercialised that allow for the capture, the conversion & use of CO2 (see Figure 1). Along with different examples, we illustrate these novel technologies by giving a summary of the main companies participating in their commercial development. Indeed, the combination of capturing and sequestering of carbon in the form of useful products has the potential to be a viable business model but needs further investigation. Additionally, the storage aspect will be briefly discussed.

Figure 1 – Carbon capture storage & utilisation overview

CO2 Capture: Economically feasible?

As pressure from regulations and effective carbon tax levels are increasing, technologies that efficiently capture CO2 from the air are becoming more interesting. According to projections, the carbon-based gas market is set to grow to 87.5 billion US$ by 2021 [2]. While the price of bulk CO2 is not easily accessible for the public, known contracts reach approximately below 30 US$/ton and can be as low as 5 US$/ton for low cost sources. The purity and quality from these sources of CO2 is an important factor that determines this price [3]. Capturing CO2 can be done via two main types of technologies: direct CO2 capture and point source capture.

Direct CO2 capture removes CO2 from the ambient air. Examples of companies developing direct air capture (DAC) technologies are Climeworks, Carbon Engineering, Skytree, and Antecy. Their processes have the same objective but are not all as widely developed. For example, the cost of the CO2 from the commercialised process developed by Climeworks is approximately 600 US$/ton, but Climeworks is expecting to reach a 100 US$/ton soon. This is also the threshold for the price of CO2 produced by Carbon Engineering, which runs a pilot plant in Canada. Skytree and Antecy are working on different technologies, however, and have no technology that is commercially available yet. Skytree is further developing a technology used for air circulation on space stations developed by the European Space Agency while Antecy is using an inorganic absorber containing potassium carbonate and activated carbon.

The point capture technology consists of capturing concentrations of high CO2 streams such as the exhaust of a fossil fuel power plant; making CO2 easier to capture, and therefore cheaper to use. The gas streams can be contaminated by acids or other volatile chemicals such as NOx and sulphur-containing molecules. Therefore, adding a cleaning step it is often necessary before using the CO2 gas as a raw material. The Canadian company Inventys is setting the standard with its technology for CO2 capture from point sources, which cost 30 US$/ton. In Europe, Leroux & Lotz is developing and testing their own technology for CO2 capture.

Figure 2 – Carbon capture & storage

Once the gas has been captured, it can be either used (CCU) or stored (CCS).  For CCS, adequate storage solutions need to be developed in order to avoid dispersion in the air again. The best-known method to dispose of the captured CO2 is storing it in depleted oil and gas fields or deep saline aquifer formations. CO2 is trapped in geological rock formations (1000 to 3000 meters deep) as displayed in figure 2. For this purpose, large and often costly infrastructure (pipelines/ships) are needed to transport the gas [4]. Furthermore, costs also include the continuous leakage monitoring of the CO2 storage locations; making the whole process not a viable business. Without revenue stream potential, CCS costs will have to be paid by taxpayers or companies. For CCS to be viable, storing CO2 underground must be cheaper for polluting industries to emit the CO2 into the atmosphere and pay a carbon tax [5].

CO2-based materials: the benefits and possible uses

While CO2 capture is not remunerative, using it to synthesise useful products can create a viable business case while preventing new carbon from being emitted. From a climate mitigation perspective, the interest of CCU lies into the reuse effect that happens for molecules of CO2 already in the atmosphere (detailed on Figure 3) [6]. Therefore, by using CO2 from the air, production under a CCU system allows to avoid the production of a new molecule trough fossil fuel combustion, in turn saving virgin resources. The more reuse of CO2 molecules happens, the better it is for climate mitigation.

Below, we detail 4 main application domains for the use of CO2. In those applications, CO2 sequestration time remains relatively short (from approx. 1 year to 20 years) compared to the atmospheric life-time of carbon dioxide (between 20 years and 200 years) [7], making an evident division between CCU where CO2 is reused and CCS where CO2 is stored for long time period.

Figure 3 – CCU system VS current system

Conventional CO2 uses

The current global consumption of CO2, in different industrial applications, amounts to 80 megatons per year [3]. So far, those application have remained quite limited and barely used with a sustainability point of view. Most of the CO2 is used for enhanced oil recovery (~2/3 of total consumption), a technique used to recover the remaining oil or gas from wells by pushing it out with pressurised gasses such as CO2. The gas is also added in greenhouses to boost the production of crops. Finally, the beverage industry uses high graded CO2 to carbonate their fizzy drinks [3]. The positive environmental impact of those usages is minimal, close to zero, as the CO2 is captured to be immediately released in the atmosphere.

CO2 fuels

The development of alternative fuels is necessary to limit our dependence on fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil. CO2 can be transformed into methanol by reacting with hydrogen gas, leaving water as a by-product. Several companies, like the leading Carbon Recycling International, are developing technologies to produce the alcohol. In France, the Jupiter 1000 Project is a cooperation to develop a methanation plant (CO2 to CH4 process). The project is a combination of CO2 capture (done by Leroux & Lotz), hydrogen production by electrolysis using renewable energy sources and methanation of this hydrogen using the captured CO2. The construction of the plant started in 2018 and is planned to be operational this year (2019).

Higher grade fuels such as kerosene for the aviation industry and fuels for the shipping industry can be produced using the Fischer-Tropsch process. CO2 can react with hydrogen (H2) to form long hydrocarbon chains. Several companies like Sunfire are working on the Fischer-Tropsch route [8].

As explained in Figure 3, by producing and burning fuels made from CO2 and hydrogen instead of extracting fossil fuels, the total carbon emitted is reduced. However, it is important to account for the energy used in the synthesising step of the CO2-based fuel (H2 production, CO2 capture, plant operation). For a positive carbon balance, it is crucial that the energy should principally come from renewable sources.

CO2-based chemicals and minerals

Various chemicals can be made using CO2 as a raw material. The most important project in Europe is led by Covestro to develop polyols to use in mattresses called cardyon™, using CO2 as a building block (CO2 Dreams Project). Furthermore, a US company called Novomer is developing a polymer made from CO2 and epoxides. The company is further researching other polymers made with CO2 as feedstock. Finally, Econic Technologies is developing catalysts for converting CO2 to polyols and polymers. The conversion of CO2 into chemicals is environmentally advantageous because of the relative long sequestration time (5 years) and minimising the use of virgin raw materials.

Mineralisation is a process for the reaction between CO2 and magnesium oxides (MgO) or calcium oxides (CaO) to form magnesium (MgCO3) and calcium carbonate (CaCO3). Once the CO2 is captured as a mineral it can be used in the construction industry as a replacement for cement or other building materials. The mineralisation of CO2 has the greatest environmental potential due to the long sequestration time (approx. 20 years) and the reduction of natural resources needed.

This technology is the least developed of the four utilisation methods, while being the most interesting from a climate point of view. Carbon8 Systems is a company in Great Britain that has a commercially viable process for CO2 mineralisation. The process is called Accelerated Mineralisation Technology (ACT) and works by making CO2 react with different waste streams from the construction and steel industries such as fly ash streams. This produces particles that can be subsequently used in construction materials and as filler for the construction sector [9].

Other companies working on the CO2 mineralisation process are Green Minerals, Orbix, Calera Corporation, CarbonCure and Carbon Upcycling. The Dutch start-up Green Minerals, for example, is developing a process to create a reaction between CO2 and olivine (Mg2SiO4) to form MgCO3 and  silicic acid (SiO2) at high temperatures and pressures. Both products can be used is a wide array of applications (paper industry, construction industry, etc…).

Building the future with CO-based materials: at what price?

The capture of CO2 is essential to curb and lower the overall CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere, and to keep the temperature increase below the targeted 1.5°C increase by 2050. As described in this paper, numerous private companies are leading innovation in technologies and products to absorb and store gaseous CO2. The large variety of CO2-based products reflects the potential of this upcoming market which could prove, in a later stage, to be environmentally positive.

However, due to the complexity of capturing a diluted gas, most of the technologies are not yet fully developed and still require serious investments in research and development (R&D), and up-scaling before possible commercialisation. On these numerous innovations, a special attention must be given to the need for solid business models, in order to avoid losing time in creating ineffective solutions. Through its mission, Greenfish is convinced about the importance of developing those solutions as fast as possible. We already collaborate with CO2 Value Europe, to develop the creation of an European legal framework that would be beneficial for the development of those technologies. Along with those developments, Greenfish believes in enhancing the creation of a strong & resilient CCU industry, while actively playing a role in the development of innovative processes for carbon capture and valorisation.

Nonetheless, being one of many decarbonisation examples, the viable development of such a sector depends on the introduction of a carbon tax. This policy instrument is needed to push Europe towards reaching its carbon objectives. A carbon tax will allow the establishment of a viable business case for CO2 capture and usage. If the tax is not implemented, it is very likely that the CCU sector would remain confined to a slow but progressive growth, therefore missing out on the urgency of climate mitigation.

Lucas Van Der Saag – Consultant at Greenfish
Quentin Lancrenon – Project Analyst at Greenfish
Nassim Daoudi – Chief Executive Officer at Greenfish

 

[1] IPCC, 2018: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty
[2] Youngman, R. (2019). Global Cleantech 100 Leading companies and themes in sustainable innovationwww.greenfish.eu/blog
[3] Brinckerhoff, P. (2011). Accelerating the uptake of CCS: industrial use of captured carbon dioxide. Global CCS Institute.
[4] Metz, B., Davidson, O., de Coninck, H., Loos, M., & Meyer, L. (2018). Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage. New York: Cambridge University Press.
[5] Fernando, H., Venezia, J., Rigdon, C., & Verma, P. (2007). Capturing King Coal: Deploying Carbon Capture and Storage Systems in the US at Scale. World Resources Institute.
[6] CO2 Value Europe, Flyer on Carbon Capture & Utilization, www.co2value.eu
[7] G. R. Sonnemann and M. Grygalashvyly (2013). Effective CO2 lifetime and future CO2 levels based on fit function. Leibniz-Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the University Rostock in Kühlungsborn
[8] Carus, M., Skoczinski, P., Dammer, L., vom berg, C., Raschka, A., & Breitmayer, E. (2019). Hitchhiker’s Guide to Carbon Capture and Utilisation. Hurth: Nova Institute
[9] Können, T. (2019, February). Bouwen zonder afval, zo maak je de woonwijk circulair. De Ingenieur