Avantium’s Chief Technology Officer Gert-Jan Gruter makes a case for Carbon Capture Utilisation as the “golden ticket” for a net-zero future.
A net zero future is impossible without the move away from fossil resources – an undeniable and inescapable fact that has resulted in mass conjecture around achieving the 2050 goal. From recycling to plant-based diets and greener energy, we aren’t short on suggestions.
Nonetheless, a complete alternative to fossil fuels is needed, one that results in negative emissions (of those technologies that lower atmospheric CO2) to stabilise global warming, achieve net zero and reduce the social cost of carbon on the world’s population.
While energy has the option of numerous alternatives such as solar and wind, chemicals and plastics only have two to choose from – biomass or using carbon dioxide (CO2). The nova institute predicts that by 2050 there will be a limit of 135 million tons of sustainably sourced bio-based plastics available. With an estimated 1200-million-ton demand in 2050, CO2 is becoming the fossil-free alternative of choice for many innovators.
Carbon capture only recently sparked the attention of the world’s decision-makers.
An example is our Volta Technology. As a global frontrunner in electrochemical CO2 reduction, Avantium’s Volta Technology unlocks CO2 as a feedstock for chemicals and materials, such as carbon-negative polymers that can compete on price and performance with some of the large-volume fossil plastics that we use today.
Carbon capture only recently sparked the attention of the world’s decision-makers, with the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer recently announcing in carbon capture technology and the US president’s $12 billion package for carbon capture projects. As it continues to gain popularity, what are the next steps in rolling out this technology?
Where are we currently and where could we go?
Historically, carbon capture has not been well-supported enough to take off on a large scale. While the likes of the Netherlands and the US are showing promise with projects and initiatives around carbon capture from start-ups and governments alike, the world is still in the early days of exploring the technology. Its full potential is yet to be realised.
Absorbing CO2 selectively has become a more well-established technology but using it as a feedstock remains in its infancy. However, to reach the 2050 net zero goal, we need negative emissions, and we simply cannot plant enough trees to reach this level. We need to address the problem at the fossil-based source.
Addressing the issue of emissions
Using CO2 from direct air capture along with renewable energy to make polymers achieves this negative footprint and can compensate for residual emissions. The Paris Agreement details that with ten gigatons of residual emissions, another ten gigatons of negative emissions must be achieved to cancel out the residual to result in net zero.
With plastic production growing by 3-4% every year, CO2 could be a worthwhile ingredient to meeting the ever-increasing plastic demand in a more sustainable, friendly way. The nova-institute predicts the potential for CO2 to be feedstock is much higher than the potential of biomass. Gigatons of CO2 can create plastics with better properties and provide a completely closed loop of recycling.
While efforts to recycle better are great behavioural changes among consumers it’s not enough.
We are just at the start of realising the true benefit of carbon capture utilisation (CUU) within the wider net zero goal. 80% of the volume of the chemical industry ends up in the plastics value chain, and the use of CO2 for making plastics can be a major contributor to this.
While efforts to recycle better are great behavioural changes among consumers it’s not enough; businesses and world leaders must now invest in the innovation of sustainable technology, such as CCU, to ensure that all corners of the net zero effort are met. The approach needs to be varied and it must be a collective effort for it to work.
Why are all carbon capture technologies not created equally?
Carbon capture technology is also discussed in relation to carbon capture storage (CCS) which involves capturing CO2, transporting it and storing it underground. However, CCS brings with it an array of issues, such as the need to design particular pipes to transport the carbon, the expense of energy production and the impacts of storing carbon – which is unknown to us currently.
Also, CCS requires major investment, which many businesses are unwilling to take on. On the other hand, CCU offers a clear roadmap for the use of captured carbon, making products which can be reused repeatedly in a perfectly circular way.
Listing the benefits of CCU may lead one to question why, then, has it not been propelled to sustainable stardom at a quicker rate. For the necessary financial backing, the technology must compete on price and performance, so demonstrating its value to investors is paramount to its success.
There are very few tangible examples that fully display the process of CUU for materials and chemicals.
Currently, the Netherlands has held several projects to explore carbon capture, such as using oil refineries in the Rotterdam Harbour to capture CO2 which is then fed into greenhouses. This involved capturing in a selective way to get consistently high-quality CO2. As aforementioned, absorbing CO2 selectively has become a firm practice, but such projects are still yet to be held for using it as feedstock instead.
This means that there are very few tangible examples that fully display the process of CCU for materials and chemicals. The next step is to scale up the technology to produce materials in tens of tons amounts, which is needed to prove its commercial viability before it can advance to the development stage and mass application.
How can we use collaboration in our journey to net zero?
Collaboration can open the doors to further innovation and exploration of real-life applications. Through brand and industry collaboration, we can demonstrate how CCU can work in our daily lives. We are not short of the expertise required to help us establish the technology as a key part of the road to net zero and must utilise this to collectively reach our goals.
By seeking out partners whose core values and end goals align with your own, your skills and ideas are doubled. Driving decarbonisation cannot be journeyed alone; we’re accelerating towards 2050 and we need to turn trial into action.
We’re accelerating towards 2050 and we need to turn trial into action.
While energy has a very clear roadmap (expanding renewables and stopping coal fire plants), materials are a comparatively blank slate. CCU has to compete head-to-head with other approaches to gain a platform and funding. Partnerships require the appropriate financial support of investors who see the technology’s potential.
Forming a solid business strategy, a bold voice and a vision for the future is paramount to gaining the interest of potential partners and investors. Governments, too, can play a key role in spearheading CCU projects, giving these technologies an international platform and providing the necessary legitimacy and funds. However, government leaders must invest in long-term carbon capture solutions, rather than choosing an easy solution with a quick fix.
We shouldn’t underestimate the growing appetite for CCU. Now is the time to strike while the iron is hot. With countries and companies showing interest in decarbonisation innovations, there is no better time than the present to invest in CCU as the tool for achieving net zero.
The risks around the social cost of carbon are extremely high and will continue to rise as time goes on. There is a glaring urgency to combat the rising global temperature too, as without action, what will happen to our agriculture? What problems will arise with drinking water?
The risks around the social cost of carbon are extremely high and will continue to rise as time goes on.
Simply put, the costs of climate change effects will be much higher in magnitude than the costs of investing to bring technologies, such as CCU, to fruition.
There is an option to revert the damage of excess CO2 in the atmosphere and use it as a useful carbon source, but we must put forward a future-thinking approach to invest in the future health of our planet and people by investing in the technology which will take us there. This can compensate for consumer demand for high-performing plastics and carbonated drinks – it’s a case of what we choose to do next.
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