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Carbon Dioxide Can Be A Resource Rather Than A Waste Product

Ed Dodge's picture
  • Member since 2013
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  • Feb 19, 2014

I recently wrote an article titled “Carbon Conversion is Key to Solving Climate Change Problems” where I discussed the need to develop markets for carbon dioxide based products.  Rather than rely on underground carbon sequestration that treats CO2 as waste, carbon conversion treats CO2 as a resource.  The reason is simple: profits.  By creating financial incentives a robust market can be developed to utilize carbon dioxide as an industrial feedstock and hopefully absorb decisive quantities of CO2 away from the atmosphere where it is driving climate change. 

I received a fair amount of skepticism in the comments on my article. Carbon utilization is not a widely discussed concept in America, but it is a growing field with research programs in the USA and Europe, and new businesses bringing these products and services to market.

This simple chart demonstrates that carbon dioxide emissions are expected to grow in coming decades despite the growth in renewable energy alternatives.  The developing world, particularly China and India, are adding coal faster than all other power sources.  Nuclear power could displace a lot of coal use for power but faces years of political and technical headwinds and the industry will be challenged to maintain market share in the near term as older plants face decommissioning.  Switching coal for natural gas is helpful in lowering CO2 but is not decisive on its own with regards to climate change.  Electrification of transportation systems may reduce petroleum use but pushes energy demand back to the power grid and therefore increases demand for coal. In short, CO2 emissions are going up.


Efforts are needed to address carbon dioxide directly.  Captured CO2 can be a useful industrial feedstock and has a wide variety of potential applications that can safely sequester it from the atmosphere while also displacing fossil fuels as a raw material.  Carbon utilization offers policy makers options to offset the costs of the reducing CO2 emissions, by converting the environmental liability into a productive asset.

But don’t take my word for it, what follows is a sampling of some of the developments in this exciting new field.  Everything in italics is taken from third parties that are actively pursuing carbon utilization. 

Dr. Gernot Klotz, Executive Director Research and Innovation at Cefic (European Chemical Industry Council) stressed the need for a change in mentality towards CO2, saying: “Europe can no longer afford to look at CO2 as pollution or waste to be disposed of; but rather as a renewable resource for the future.”

CO2 as a feedstock for chemistry can be used in many different ways, such as renewable energy storage and as an ingredient to make polymers and new materials. The next step will be to make CO2 a key enabler for artificial photosynthesis via chemical processes.

Dr. Klotz sees CO2 as the only renewable resource Europe has in abundance and can play a vital role in ensuring Europe’s future as a competitive economy.

In early October Prof Gabriele Centi from the University of Messina gave a technical overview of the potential of CO2 as a feedstock during a Cefic sponsored session at the European Innovation Summit in Brussels. He said that “CO2 is neither a polluter nor a waste” and that it could be “a raw material that enabled change for society.”

He also sees CO2 as a valuable carbon source and a key element to realise energy and resource efficiency and introduce new renewable energy concepts. The carbon-based economy would provide a new scenario for sustainable chemicals production that integrated biomass and CO2 as feedstocks for a “new chemistry for the future”.

The (re)use of CO2 could be a massive opportunity for Europe he concluded. It could exploit a currently untapped resource and contribute to reducing GHG emissions and be a major driver of innovation and growth.


DNV, the respected Norwegian classification and risk management society, issued a position paper that provides technical detail and some market estimates for CO2 utilization.

There are essentially three pathways for utilizing CO2: conversion of CO2 into fuel, utilization of CO2 as a feedstock for chemicals, and non-conversion use of CO2. The various utilization technologies together have the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 3.7 gigatons/year (Gt/y) (approximately 10 % of total current annual CO2 emissions), both directly and by reducing use of fossil fuels. However, much greater reductions are possible through wider adoption of these technologies.

It has been estimated that by 2035, the world will produce 15 Gt/y of CO2 from burning liquid fuels. In addition to generating biomass, CO2 can be converted via chemical and electrochemical processes to other energy storage chemicals, such as syngas, formic acid, methane, ethylene, methanol, and dimethyl ether (DME).

 An alternative pathway is to convert CO2 into chemical feedstock. The entire portfolio of commodity chemicals are currently manufactured from a few primary building blocks or platform chemicals in the fossil-based chemical industry. CO2 can be used as a source material and, utilizing renewable energy sources and water, can be converted into a similar suite of building block chemicals.

Insertion of CO2 into epoxides to manufacture various polymeric materials is an exciting technology as it not only utilizes CO2, but also avoids using fossil feedstock and creating CO2 emissions. It has been estimated that the various chemical conversion pathways can consume approximately 0.3 to 0.7 Gt/y of CO2

Conversion of CO2 into inorganic minerals that may be used in building materials is being pursued by some companies. This involves a combination of electrochemical reactions to generate the alkaline reactant and necessary mineralization reactions. Initial estimates suggest that even if 10 % of the world’s building materials were to be replaced by such a source, consumption of 1.6Gt/y CO2 would result CO2 can also be used in various processes without first converting it into other chemical forms. The injection of supercritical CO2 into depleted oil wells to enhance the further recovery of oil is well established. Indeed, this is presently the only commercially viable technology for carbon capture and storage (CCS). It has been estimated that CO2 injection can increase oil recovery from a depleting well by about 10 to 20 % of the original oil in place. Similarly, CO2 can be used to recover methane from unmined coal seams. It has been estimated that in the U.S. alone, 89 billion barrels of oil could technically be recovered using CO2, leading to a storage of 16 Gt of CO2 in the depleted oil reservoirs [10]. The use of supercritical CO2 as a solvent in processing many chemicals (e.g., flavor extraction) is also well established. New uses of supercritical CO2 in chemical processing are emerging, and have the added benefit of reducing water usage. Supercritical CO2 is also being explored as a heat transfer fluid for some geothermal applications. These non-conversion methods of utilization constitute a significant fraction of the total CO2 emissions.

I wrote about two new technology firms using CO2 as a feedstock previously. 

Novomer uses CO2 as a feedstock for polymers and plastics. 

Joule is using genetically modified bacteria, sunlight and CO2 to produce ethanol and diesel.

Skyonic Corporation has developed a mineralization process for scrubbing industrial flue gasses.  Skyonic’s first for-profit carbon mineralization plant is under construction and scheduled to be completed this year.

Skyonic’s SkyMine® technology removes CO2 from industrial waste streams through co-generation of saleable carbonate and/or bicarbonate materials. In addition to capturing and mineralizing CO2, the SkyMine® process cleans SOx and NO2 from the flue gas, and removes heavy metals such as mercury. Existing power plants and industrial plants can be retrofitted with SkyMine®. Successful implementation of the SkyMine® technology establishes pathways for mitigating CO2 in areas where geologic storage, the predominant competing CO2 sequestration technology, is not an optimal solution.

A SkyMine® plant can be retrofitted to stationary emitters to economically remove CO2 from the exhaust stream and transform it into solids instead of a gas. Solid carbonates and bicarbonates can be profitably sold to market and are ideal for long-term, safe storage such as minefill or landfill. Solid storage of CO2 means that there is no need for pipeline transport, injection, or concern about CO2 re-release, as with other CO2 capture and sequestration technologies.

Another key advantage of the SkyMine® process is its scalability, as it allows an industrial or power plant owner to configure the degree of CO2 removal anywhere from 10% to 99%. This is important because industrial plants and power plants around the world have unique designs requiring different CO2 removal configurations.

The SkyMine® technology can be operated at a profit, due to the sale of byproducts. The solid carbonates and bicarbonates are saleable for use in bio-algae applications. SkyMine® also produces green chemicals, such as hydrochloric acid, bleach, chlorine, and hydrogen, which are also profitable and can replace less environmentally-friendly products in market.

The fact that the SkyMine® process removes virtually all SOX, NO2, and mercury and other heavy metals that would otherwise be emitted by the plant means it can replace existing scrubber technologies and eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars in capital expense and tens of millions of dollars in ongoing expenses.

CO2 Solutions uses enzymes to boost the productivity of solvent scrubbers used to capture CO2.

CO2 Solutions’ technology addresses the high-cost barrier to Carbon Capture & Sequestration (CCS) created by conventional solvent-based CO2 capture processes. The technology, inspired by nature, utilizes the extremely powerful enzyme catalyst which efficiently manages carbon dioxide in humans and other living organisms, carbonic anhydrase.

For example, it efficiently manages the respiratory process in humans. Carbonic anhydrase is the most powerful catalyst known for the hydration of CO2, that is, converting carbon dioxyde to bicarbonate and protons.

The technology platform uses CA to dramatically accelerate the capture of CO2 with energy-efficient solvents.  With these solvents, the use of the enzyme technology provides an economically attractive carbon capture solution with efficient capture and lower energy consumption.

In essence, the technology is an ‘industrial lung’ which takes advantage of CA’s capacity for the highly efficient capture and release of carbon dioxide in natural systems, adapted to industrial gas effluent streams. The approach follows in the footsteps of other enzymes successfully deployed to increase the efficiency of industrial processes, from biofuels to detergents to food production.

Nobel Laureate George Olah, a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California, argued: Let’s chemically recycle CO2 – just like plants do.  Methanol would provide renewable fuels, synthetic hydrocarbon products while stemming global warming.

Carbon Recycling International has followed Prof. Olah’s lead and has constructed successful pilot plants for producing methanol from CO2.

Pilot Plant
The pilot plant has been operating since 2007. It is an experimental facility for testing process flow sheets for carbon dioxide to liquid fuels. The lab can produce .05 million liters a year for fuel blending demonstration.

First Commercial Plant
The George Olah Renewable Methanol Plant has a production capacity of 5 million liters per year. Its purpose is to improve plant economics for building larger plants and to gain operating experience, which includes validation of distribution channels and logistics of Renewable Methanol in Iceland and the EU. Operation of the plant began in Q4 2011 at Svartsengi.

NewCO2Fuels Israel based New CO2 Fuels (NCF) has announced successful completion of Stage 1 Proof of Concept testing for high-temperature dissociation of carbon dioxide (CO2; as contained in industrial emissions) into carbon monoxide (CO) and oxygen. Two technologies demonstrated in Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science are being co-developed: (1) CO2 emissions to gaseous and liquid fuels, and (2) a solar thermal system that can produce the 1200 degrees Centigrade necessary to drive that dissociation and catalysis. In Stage 1 testing, the rate of dissociation has been increased by a factor of 200, while costs have been reduced by about a third from initial trials. The same system used for CO2 dissociation also is effective in dissociating water to hydrogen and oxygen; combining CO and H2 creates a synthetic fuel gas that can also be catalyzed to produce liquid fuel. In Stage 2 testing during the first quarter of 2014, the CO2 dissociation rate is expected to be quadrupled, and the thermochemical system will be integrated with NCF’s solar thermal technology. NCF expects to start commercial scale reactor development later this year, once Stage 2 testing is completed.

Research Programs

The US Department of Energy has a program in carbon utilization and so does the NETL.




The Centre for Innovation in Carbon Capture and Storage at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland is an interdisciplinary, innovative, and international leading centre for research at the interface between science and engineering.

Here is a good paper from Penn State University.

Journal of CO2 Utilization

The Journal of CO2 Utilization offers a single, multi-disciplinary, scholarly platform for the exchange of novel research in the field of CO2 re-use for scientists and engineers in chemicals, fuels and materials.

The emphasis will be on the dissemination of leading-edge research from basic science to the development of new processes, technologies and applications. This includes CO2 as a feedstock in the chemical, energy and materials sectors, and utilization in general to help minimize environmental impact.

Conferences are being held.

Carbon Dioxide Utilization Summit, 2013

Brussels, Germany 30-31 October

The strong carbon pricing and equivalent regulatory mechanism will ultimately be necessary to drive widespread commercial deployment of carbon dioxide utilisation technologies.

Responding to these economics and market drivers, some of the world`s largest players in power and other industrial sectors are investing in projects to more profitably utilise CO2 for diverse industrial applications. The new environment has created an exciting tipping point in strategic partnering, investment, and construction that is driving rapid growth in commercialisation of CO2 utilisation technologies.

Mature CO2 reuse technologies as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) can play a lead role in CO2 utilisation, though the emerging technologies in petrochemical, biochemical, fuel, and power energy sector are already making inroads.

Carbon Dioxide Utilization Congress, 2014

San Diego, CA, February 19-20


The perception of carbon dioxide as a waste product is being challenged by a new wave of industrial applications. CO₂ utilization is now set to play an important role in the development of alternative fuels, ways to tackle climate change and the synthesis of high value chemicals.

*Overcoming Barriers to Wider Adoption of CO₂Utilization Applications*
*CO₂ as an Asset: Potential Benefits & Challenges for Society*
₂ Utilization Technologies to Scale CO₂ Emissions Without Subsidies*
*Capture and Reuse of CO₂ & NOx from Stationary Engine Flue Gas for Algae Production*
*Deployment of Enzymatic Technology for Low-Cost CO
₂ Mitigation*
*Carbon-Negative Fuels from Algae Biomass, Wastewater & CO
*Sustainable Production of Green Feed for Transportation Fuels from CO
₂ & Hydrogen*
*Achieving Efficient Separation and Utilization of CO
₂ in the Production of Fine Chemicals*
*Development of a High Efficiency Supercritical CO
₂ Hot Gas Turbo-Expander & Low Cost Heat Exchangers*

3rd Conference on Carbon Dioxide as Feedstock for Chemistry and Polymers:

2 – 3 December 2014, Haus der Technik, Essen, Germany

Carbon Dioxide – raw material of the future


CO2 pipelines have been operating in the United States for almost 40 years, and there are approximately 3,600 miles of CO2 pipelines in operation today. 

Today, CO2 is mainly transported in pipelines for industrial purposes. The majority of CO2 pipelines are found in North America, where there is over 30 years of experience in transporting CO2, mainly from natural deposits and gas processing plants for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The only existing offshore pipeline for transporting CO2 is the Snøhvit pipeline, which has been transporting CO2 (obtained from natural gas extraction) through a 153 km seabed pipeline from Hammerfest in north Norway back to the Snøhvit field under the Barents Sea, since May 2008.

Let’s conclude with the eminent Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest J. Moniz.  Sec. Moniz conducted an interview with David Biello of Scientific American in Dec. 2013.

What about carbon dioxide capture and storage? Where does that technology stand today? Is it as ready as the new Environmental Protection Agency regulations imply?
First of all, it’s ready in the sense that the technology is clearly there. Clean Air Act regulations have always been, I think the official terminology is, “technology forcing.” But there’s no question it’s available. It’s happening now.

There is a plant in North Dakota that has been sending huge amounts of CO2 into Canada for enhanced oil recovery [EOR] for years now. It has sequestered in EOR I think 20 megatons of CO2. The capture technologies for post-combustion have been employed, too, of course.

There’s no doubt the technology exists. In fact, I was down at Kemper County in Mississippi a month ago and saw the almost complete Southern Company [CO2 capture and storage] plant down there. It’s a monster. It’s 550 megawatts. It’s almost complete, not quite, but in 2014. The company has its long-term contracts in place for [the purchase of] electricity, for sulfuric acid, for ammonia and for carbon dioxide. It built a 60-mile pipeline to connect down to oil fields in southern Mississippi.

Both of the facilities that Dr. Moniz is discussing, the Dakota Synfuels plant and the Kemper County plant, sell their captured CO2 for EOR as a profitable business.  EOR is at the moment the only large scale, commercially viable option for CO2 sequestration available today.  I have written about Dakota Synfuels here.

Treating CO2 as an asset represents a sea-change in the approach to limiting carbon dioxide pollution.  Rather than punish fuel consumers through a punitive carbon tax, carbon utilization offers the possibility that capturing and sequestering CO2 could be a profitable enterprise with a growing market that could set off a virtuous cycle of ever improving carbon management techniques.

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Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Feb 19, 2014

Excellent article. At this stage it is hard to say just how much CO2 could realistically be utilized per year, but you are certainly right that a very wide range of possibilities exists. It is also very encouraging to see that this area is attracting ever-increasing amounts of attention. 

I believe that the CO2 utilization market will expand very rapidly as soon as a sizable CO2 price starts to incentivise the “production” of large quantities of pure CO2. Smart entrepreneurs will then quickly figure out how to use this feedstock (which they will actually be paid to use) in a profitable manner.

As you note, however, the CO2 utilization market most probably needs the catalyst of a sufficiently strong CO2 price in order to ignite. I hope this happens sooner rather than later. 

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Feb 20, 2014

Good article.  It’s a nice compilation of activity in the field.  But there are some big caveats that need to go with it.  One is the matter of scale that Mr. Alpar mentions.  

To say that the amount of CO2 than needs to be utilized is “simply huge” is an understatement.  None of the applications considered have the present potential to utilize more than a tiny fraction of a percent of what is emitted in combustion of fossil fuels.  Imagine taking a class of children on a field trip to the municipal landfill, and letting them pick through a portion of the day’s collections to find materials for art projects.  Then displaying what the kids have salvaged for their art projects as an alternative to landfills!

It may be the case that we can, in fact, do away with landfills.  I understand that Sweden has already gotten there, or is at least close.  But it takes strict recycling policies and a willingness to pay the costs. And there are costs.

For CO2, a big part of the problem is that CO2 lies very near the bottom of a large potential energy hill.  Yes, one can use it as a source of carbon for synthesizing fuels, plastics, and other organic chemicals — but only after expending a lot more energy to strip away the oxygen and “undo” the combustion than what was released in its initial combustion.  In rough numbers, one would need to burn about six gallons of diesel in an efficient diesel-electric generator to produce enough electricity to synthesize one gallon of synthetic diesel fuel.  That’s with the best process technologies available today.

We could theoretically produce enough synthetic fuel to fly our airplanes and power heavy construction equipment, and someday we will — if we don’t destroy ourselves first.  But we will need a vast amount of very cheap non-fossil energy to do it.  The energy is there, either in sunlight or in the world’s vast supply of fertile heavy elements, but it will take time and a lot of new infrastructure to tap it.  

In terms of ability to scale quickly, the most promising approach — in my opinion — is high altitude, above-the-weather PV, as proposed by StratoSolar.  The high duty cycle, high efficiency, and low cost of the panels should enable production of electricity at rates that are low enough for feasibility of synthetic fuel production.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Feb 20, 2014

A bunch of good points have been made regarding the technical challenges of utilizing carbon dioxide.  CO2 fuels obviously require an energy input, the sheer quantities of billions of tons of carbon are mind boggling, and sequestration needs to be permanent not just transitory.

I agree with all the points made.

The real heart of my argument is the need to commoditize carbon if we expect to have any hope of dealing with it.  The problem with the carbon sequestration solutions generally being put forth, disposal in saline aquifers for instance, is that they leave unanswered the questions of “who is going to pay for it” and “who is going to be responsible long term”.  Without a good answer to these questions then these proposals are bound to languish on the shelf.

It is no accident that they only carbon sequestration projects that have been successful, which are EOR projects, have a buyer for the carbon dioxide and a positive balance sheet for the project.  This is the dynamic that needs to be replicated.

Personally, I find the mineralization and polymerization pathways to be the most intriguing because they allow to the carbon to be solidified and we can have a reasonable expectation that they can be structurally stable.  Using these new materials as building products could both absorb large tonnages while displacing some of the fosil fuels used to produce, concrete, bricks and plastics.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 23, 2014


In response to skepticism in the comments to your previous post you have decided to study bomb your readers.

So again, my simple question. How much carbon dioxide can we potentially sequester using carbon conversion?

That piece of prophecy you show from EIA shows a hell of a lot of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere per year, roughly 15 billion tonnes worth. Please make an effort to show how much of this can be sequestered using carbon conversion, and do not study bomb like this to impress readers.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Feb 23, 2014


I offered up this “study bomb” in response to certain critics who seemed to think I was making up this entire concept out of whole cloth.

As I indicated in our previous exchanges I do not have a simple answer for how much carbon could be sequestered by any particular industry, nor does anyone else.

The more important question is why are current efforts to implement carbon sequestration failing and what can be done to reverse that?  As you have indicated in some of your work, the use of coal is not going away even if it can be reduced.

Increasingly, international leaders are shifting the discussion from CCS to CCUS, carbon capture, utilization and sequestration becaue it is recognized that there is no business model for CCS, but utilization injects profits and financial incentives that will encourage investors to engage this industry and help it grow.  Without a business model CCS is dead in the water.

I believe that carbon dioxide is a fundamentally useful molecule, it is not toxic waste and it is a mistake to treat it that way. 


donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Feb 24, 2014

Excellent comment.

A lot of possibilities but very few realities are highlighted by the article. Skymine for example if fully proven would only run at limited capacities due to its byproduct having limited use. Yet the tone is too optimistic going with when rather than if.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 24, 2014


Your refusal to answer this simple questions shows to me that you haven’t thought about this issue in a remotely serious way. Your pieces imply that carbon conversion is essential to solving climate change. This makes it clear that we will need to convert billions and billions of tonnes of the stuff. Why are you not capable of providing me with an estimate? If you aren’t then your articles are nothing but hot air. If a nuclear advocate was to come on here they could tell me that nuclear can provide X TWh and can reduce CO2 by Y tonnes. If an electric car advocate came on they might tell me that they can get X million cars on the roads by 2020 and this can reduce emissions by Y. You on the other hand wave your hands around and then complain about “hole picking” when someone actually asks you to provide some substance to back up the hand waving.

So again, could we sequester 10 billion tonnes of CO2 using carbon conversion? Yes, or no, and how can it be done?

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Feb 24, 2014


You are the one who has failed to address my thesis that it is the economics that will drive the industry of carbon sequestration forward.

Do you dispute that the only successful carbon sequestration projects have been those that sell the carbon dioxide?  Those projects in the US are the Dakota Synfuels plant and the soon to be commissioned Kemper, MS coal gasification plant.  Both of these facilities sell the captured carbon for use in EOR.  

Today EOR is the only large scale commercial market for captured carbon.  My argument has been that there are other potential industries since CO2 is a versatile and useful molecule.  I don’t frankly know which industries may prove successful and which ones will not.  The market will decide.

Its all about the economics, if you cannot address that issue specifically which you have yet to do, then this conversation is really pointless and tiresome.


Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 24, 2014


I feel like the atheist who when asking a religious person to show that God exists is told to show that God does not exist.

Why try to move the argument away from this point of scale? Is it because you haven’t bothered to research the actual potential of carbon conversion? Pointless and tiresome, indeed.

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