CREDIT: Unsplash

Before the industrial revolution the world removed carbon from the air all by itself. With global carbon emissions breaking records in 2022 and potential risks of storing carbon underground, however, companies are getting creative and repurposing captured carbon in unexpected ways.

The Paris Agreement in 2015 had countries all over the world commit to take part in the race to net-zero emissions. Those countries are working toward the agreement’s renewable-energy goals, but more can be done to control greenhouse gases. One solution is carbon capture.

Natural or human-made

Carbon capture is the process of retrieving carbon emissions from the air and storing them. The process can be natural or manmade.

Natural carbon capture and storage is achieved by elements of the planet’s ecosystems. Trees, for example, are an effective carbon-capture and storage mechanism: Their leaves absorb carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis. But if trees are cut and burned for firewood — or even if the tree dies naturally — stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

The largest source of natural carbon capture is the world’s oceans. The United Nations estimates that the oceans soak up about 25 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions and 90 percent of the surplus heat those emissions cause.

This natural carbon-capture process is called the carbon cycle. The problem is the world’s ecosystems can’t keep up with the greenhouse gases that are being produced by humans.

Enter man-made carbon capture.

Carbon-capture processes are designed to remove carbon from industrial waste or from the air outside. Carbon-capture plants typically have walls of giant fans, sucking in air. They remove the carbon from the air, convert it to liquid, store it underground or use it to inject into oil fields to simplify oil extraction. But there are challenges with carbon capture.

These large plants require a lot of energy in the form of materials to build the facilities and the energy to run them. Additionally, once the carbon dioxide is stored, there are risks. The carbon dioxide could leak out of the stored areas, polluting water sources and eventually reaching the surface — once again polluting the air.

Reasons for concern

There is also concern that pressure from injecting the carbon underground could cause seismic activity and controversy over whether carbon capture and storage might embolden fossil-fuel use. The 2022 report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis says, “Captured carbon has mostly been used for enhanced oil recovery” and “enhancing oil production is not a climate solution.”

While easing oil removal is the most common use of captured carbon, some companies are getting creative and managing carbon in other unusual ways.

Many large companies purchase carbon offsets to reduce their footprints. But individuals can purchase them as well. One company selling to individuals is Climeworks, a Swiss-based carbon-removal company that captures 900 tons of carbon annually. Buyers can even offer this as a “green gift” in the name of someone else. Climeworks also produces the bubbles for carbonated beverages for such clients as Coca-Cola.

Also getting off the ground is E-Jet fuel from carbon-capture company Twelve. The company says this fuel lowers greenhouse-gas emission of traditional fuels by 80 percent. Twelve entered into a memorandum of understanding with Alaska Air Group and Microsoft to work toward testing the fuel on a commercial flight.

Taking Off

In an announcement of the partnership, Nicholas Flanders, co-founder and CEO of Twelve said, “By producing our drop-in E-Jet fuel from captured CO2, we can rapidly and efficiently close the carbon cycle and allow businesses to sustainably use emissions to power their own business travel.” No date for the testing of the commercial flight has been announced. Air Transport Action Group reports that aviation makes up 12 percent of emissions from all transport sources.

After returning home from a green, commercial flight, weary travelers might do some green laundry with laundry capsules made from captured carbon.

In 2010, Unilever, which produces over 400 household brands such as Omo, Ben and Jerry’s and Dove, began a decades-long commitment to halve its environmental impact by 2030. One of the ingredients used to make foam in Omo (Persil) laundry capsules is fossil fuels. But on World Earth Day in 2021, Unilever launched a limited-edition capsule that used captured carbon instead of fossil fuels in a new process that makes the capsule 82 percent less carbon intensive. Unilever aims to achieve net zero emissions from its product line by 2039.

Even with the volume of removal, storage and creative ways carbon is being repurposed, carbon neutrality remains out of reach. The 2021 Global Status of Carbon Capture and Storage Report estimates that in order to reach mid-century goals, the number of carbon-capture facilities would have to increase by 100 times. There are currently 27.

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