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Why Store Carbon Underground When You Can Reuse it In a Chemical?

As scientists, policymakers, environmentalists and industries around the world grapple with the challenge of reducing carbon emissions, much effort is spent on finding ways to do what we have always done with waste – bury it. Various proposals and research projects have focused on storing (or "sequestering") carbon in underground formations.

There’s no doubt many of these carbon sequestration technologies have great promise, but they reflect a continuation of the “old-school” approach to waste. There is, however, a new generation of renewable technologies that are putting a new twist on this age-old problem of carbon waste — carbon recycling.

Companies are working on technologies that will transform waste gases like CO and CO2 from energy intensive industries into fuels and chemicals. So, instead of storing the carbon underground, it will be reused in fuels and chemicals.

In doing so, these technologies reduce overall emissions while at the same time it substitutes carbon from new fossil fuels. By creating a revenue stream from emissions, energy intensive industries finally have a powerful incentive to invest in these technologies.

Technologies are indeed rapidly moving into commercial scales of production. Just a few years ago the potential of using CO2 as a resource was surprising and welcome news in scientific publications. Today we are learning about new technologies that are coming online in real world facilities and are starting to make significant breakthroughs in carbon reuse technology.  

Companies that use biological organisms to consume CO2 are advancing in leaps and bounds. Sapphire Energy has opened an impressive biorefinery in New Mexico that will grow algae and refine it into a renewable substitute for crude oil. The process will reuse significant quantities of carbon dioxide.

Companies like Fulcrum BioEnergy, which is building a facility to convert municipal solid waste into low-carbon renewable ethanol, will divert large volumes of garbage that would otherwise have been buried in landfills.

Here at LanzaTech we are using biological organisms to transform industrial waste gases like carbon monoxide into fuels and chemicals through our gas fermentation technology. In doing so, the technology reduces overall emissions as it substitutes carbon from fossil fuels. We are currently operating at pre-commercial-scale in Shanghai, China at a facility we’ve developed with Baosteel, one of the largest steel producers in the world, and plan to move into commercial operation in 2013.

One reason these carbon recycling approaches are moving so quickly is that they can create value from waste.  Depending on the industry, the producer can meet regulatory requirements, potentially earn credits for CO2 reductions, and drive revenue from products derived from emissions. Technology providers like LanzaTech benefit because we can procure gas resources, which are typically 80 percent of the cost of the finished product, at low costs.

Carbon taxation, trading schemes and government policies are becoming increasingly prevalent globally, but the real driving force behind developments in industry is the fact that new technologies are challenging the traditional assumptions about how best to deal with waste. By giving industry a tool to reuse waste and derive a profit, these new technologies have the potential to accelerate overall emissions reductions at a time when the world needs it most.

This entire discussion was best framed by economist Stuart L. Hart in a Harvard Business Review article. Hart stated:  “Rarely is greening linked to strategy or technology development, and as a result, many companies fail to recognize opportunities of potentially staggering proportions.”

We are at the cusp of helping energy intensive industries realize “opportunities of staggering proportions” as technologies that convert waste into valuable fuels and chemicals evolve and scale, and as industries around the world begin adopting their use. We should be asking ourselves, if these technologies are available now, why on earth are we still considering burying carbon?

Image: Landfill via Shutterstock

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