Carbon dioxide is the bad boy of global climate change. But what if we can turn one of our biggest and most problematic sources of pollution into a prized resource? A selection of innovative businesses are showing the way.
As humans, we create huge amounts of waste products. Usually they are so undesirable to us that we have given them a special name: pollutants.
The history of the term pollution is fascinating. It might surprise you that it hasn’t always been about environmental contamination. In fact, pollution referring to the environment was first recorded only in the mid-1800s and wasn’t common until the 1950s. The term ‘pollution’ was originally used to describe harm that humans enacted upon themselves. Webster’s first dictionary in 1828 described pollution as “defilement; uncleanness; impurity; the state of being polluted”, usually associated with sexual or spiritual harms. The understanding of pollution was moral, political, religious and legal – not environmental.
Fast-forward a century and the word has a whole new meaning. Now, scientists increasingly agree that humans have created a new geological epoch – a period in the earth’s 4.5 billion year history during which our activities and polluting waste are the dominant influences on climate and the environment. They’ve called it the Anthropocene, from the root word ‘anthropo-’ which means ‘relating to humankind’. From buildings and plastics to air and water pollution – even nuclear fallout – we are stamping our indelible footprint on the earth.
It is now up to us to adapt to the world that we are changing by reprocessing our polluting wastes and turning them into valuable feedstocks. The good news is that we have started doing so already with one of the worst of them all, namely carbon dioxide, and the race is on to capture its full value. The Global Opportunity Explorer profiles an encouraging number of innovations across different sectors that use carbon dioxide as an input or feedstock to produce energy and products.
The pioneers and first movers
Algenol feeds carbon dioxide to algae which, together with sunlight and seawater, produce sugars which are converted into biofuels. The carbon dioxide they use is sourced as a waste output from other industries located nearby to their production facilities. The biofuels are refined to ‘green’ gasoline, jet fuel and biodiesel, drawing investment from large players such as the US Department of Energy. And since the process uses seawater and not fresh water, and the production facilities are located on non-arable land near the sea, the company’s environmental footprint is kept to a minimum.
Ennesys has a radical vision to use CO2, sunlight and microalgae to purify wastewater, generate clean energy and produce fertilizer. Algal biomass will be fed by nutrients in wastewater piped through bioreactors on building roofs or façades in cities. The water is purified and the biomass can be harvested and converted to carbon-neutral biogas and bio-boosting fertilizer.
Surprisingly, it’s also possible to make materials with carbon dioxide. Carbon-negative plastic? Newlight Technologies has that covered. Their CO2-based AirCarbon plastics match oil-based plastics in price and performance and customers include some of the largest manufacturers in the furniture, packaging and electronics industries, such as Ikea and The Body Shop.
In the construction sector, Solidia’s cement is hardened by injecting it with industrial waste CO2 instead of fresh water. Solidia’s concrete is ready in about 24 hours, compared to 28 days with conventional methods. Not only does the cement cure in a fraction of the normal time, but their innovation effectively sequesters CO2 emissions from industrial processes into construction and building materials.
It’s also possible to use carbon dioxide for improving industrial processes. DyeCoo uses reclaimed, liquid CO2 in a closed-loop system to dye fabrics, completely eliminating the need for water and reducing energy consumption by 50%. This has caught the attention of major brands such as Nike, who are now using the process for some of their clothing ranges.
Where will this all lead?
None of these innovations have scaled globally quite yet, but there’s a sense that dramatic breakthroughs are already happening. Capturing and reprocessing CO2 is on track to become a booming market, and these companies are some of the first that are turning one of our biggest and most problematic sources of air pollution into another valuable resource.
So where will the waste CO2 for these industries come from? There’s more than enough to be captured from traditional industries, but it’s not always in the right form. The solution could be similar to Climework’s giant machines which effectively ‘suck’ CO2 from the air for industrial uses. Additionally, we’ll soon be able to capture and store huge quantities of carbon dioxide in old offshore gas reservoirs, such as those being developed off the coast of the Netherlands. It will be an ironic and positive twist when one day we pump the gas back up because we need more of it for industrial processes.
Back in the early 1800s, when pollution didn’t refer to environmental contamination, it was commonly believed that city air was cleaner than the air in the countryside. Many people even considered emissions as beneficial, and some public health authorities claimed that “the chemicals released by the burning of coal cleaned biological impurities in the air”. We’ve certainly come far in some respects!
But now it’s time for the real work to really accelerate. It may seem impossible right now, but in a truly circular economy there won’t be any environmental pollution again. The age of enacting harm on ourselves by harming the environment can come to an end. To get there, we need to consider every waste stream as an integral resource which helps maintain the ecological and anthropological balance.
Header image: veeterzy / unsplash.com; Cityscape: Pavel Dvorak / unsplash.com; Algae biofuel production: Erik Kellar Photography in Biomass Magazine; Nike shirt: news.nike.com; Pine tree: Manuel Will / unsplash.com