By Gert-Jan Gruter, Chief Technology Officer, Avantium
The impact of industry-related activities on climate change has been well-documented in recent years. Extreme weather conditions have become far more frequent, and rising temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions pose threats to our environment. The recently published report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels were at an all-time high in 2019. It also revealed that we are on the way to hitting a 1.5C overall temperature increase, which was set out as a target to reduce climate change, by 2040. This is 60 years earlier than predicted.
The CO2 crisis
Carbon is a chemical element that makes up the structure of most living things: human, animal, and plant life are all carbon-based. Earth has a way of exchanging and reusing carbon across all parts of our ecosystem called the Carbon Cycle. Before industrialisation, this cycle was balanced and harmonious, helping to maintain a stable climate. As carbon is a vital element in the products, we use every day – from packaging materials, textiles, to many other consumer goods – it has led to the continued use of fossil-based carbon sources, such as crude oil, natural gas and coal. This has disrupted that balance and harmony by releasing excess CO2 into the atmosphere – more than our environment can absorb.
CO2 is known to be one of the biggest contributors to global warming. However, positive changes have been made towards reducing emissions, with companies striving to be carbon-zero, countries imposing carbon taxes, and consumers adopting greener alternatives to lower their carbon footprints. While this trend is encouraging, the pace of change is not quick enough. We need to create solutions that are cost-effective and sustainable that will not only tackle the emissions problem but also pave the way for a greener world.
Still, the solution to lower carbon is not as straightforward for specific industries, such as cement and steel. Alternatives are not readily available, and cost-effective, scalable technologies have yet to be introduced. One way of tackling this is by developing technologies that can utilise the carbon found in CO2 to make the materials and products the world needs. While many sustainable energy alternatives are available, biomass and CO2 are the only alternatives for fossil feedstock for producing polymer/plastic materials.
A world where CO2 is not harmful, but useful
Some companies are turning to the storage of CO2, called Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS) as a solution. However, its benefits are limited and carbon-use will remain linear rather than circular. While it can reduce emissions in the atmosphere, significant infrastructure is required to store the carbon. In the long-term, we’ll end up with large deposits of carbon in our environment, which is still harmful.
The true opportunity lies in Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU). Developments in electrochemistry have allowed CO2 to be used to produce chemicals and materials in a sustainable way. Carbon can be captured from the air via Direct Air Capture (DAC) or from point sources and can be fed back into manufacturing processes. Greenhouse gas is sequestered into products that can replace plastics and chemicals that are currently produced from fossil resources. This technology is truly revolutionary for the industry.
CCU has the potential to replace fossil-based resources while creating both novel and the same products manufacturers produced before. Clean, sustainable products can be produced without emitting excess carbon into the atmosphere. Additionally, this process could allow factories to make these chemicals and materials that feed into the circular economy, while also improve their carbon footprint.
Reusing carbon instead of wasting it is what nature has done for millions of years to maintain the climate. CCU allows us to continue making the products people want without increasing emissions and further contributing to climate change. By continuing to invest and develop game-changing technologies such as CCU, we can pave the way to a circular and more sustainable future.