The use of carbon atoms in various materials and energy carriers has provided the foundation for much of our welfare. Parallel to this, it has brought upon us key challenges in the shape of environmental problems and the climate crisis. We now need to find ways to use carbon-based substances without simultaneously destroying our planet. And the solution may be found in the fumes from many industrial chimneys.
For modern society, the chemical element carbon is both a blessing and a curse.
Much of the climate crisis and the environmental challenges we are currently facing and attempting to manage is due to our use of – above all else – fossilised carbon in energy and material production.
Parallel to this, we owe much of the welfare we have enjoyed in recent decades to the very same carbon products.
“Carbon-based molecules are found in almost all the materials we use in our daily lives. Consider, for example, all the different types of plastics and the items we produce with wood as the primary raw material. They all contain carbon atoms,” says Erik Furusjö, a researcher at RISE.
Now when we are to transition to a sustainable society, we must, at least for the foreseeable future, find new ways to use carbon and energy in material production.
“We’ve grown accustomed to having a virtually unlimited supply of carbon atoms, but moving forward, we’ll need to become less dependent on carbon,” says Markus Norström, a Business and Innovation Area Manager at RISE.
Accordingly, if we want to maintain our standard of living, we will need to find sustainable ways to use carbon atoms to produce new materials. Such as by recycling different plastics and switching to materials produced from biomass.
“As for biomass, there’s a limited supply with competition for its use. It can be part but not all of the solution,” says Erik.
We still recycle only a negligible share of all the plastic that is produced.
“Most of it ends up in energy recovery, that is, combusted to produce heat and energy,” says Markus.
We’ll need to become less dependent on carbon
However, neither biomass nor recycling existing materials will be enough. If we want to move away from fossilised carbon sources, we will need to find other ways to source the necessary carbon atoms.
One way to gain access to more carbon is to capture it where it often ends up after use – in the carbon dioxide emitted from industrial chimneys. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) deep in the bedrock has long been discussed, with several major projects under way. However, why not make use of the captured carbon atoms rather than store them?
Experiments in what is known as carbon capture and utilisation, or CCU for short, are already under way. All large carbon-emitting facilities, such as heating plants and paper and pulp mills, have the potential to capture and reuse carbon dioxide. As part of these efforts, RISE’s experts are developing mobile pilot plants for capturing carbon dioxide.
“This is a method with great potential. Huge quantities of carbon are emitted from industrial chimneys, and such combustion will continue for the foreseeable future. Moreover, carbon capture is already an established method,” says Erik.
“The next step is to use our purification plant to obtain the right quality of carbon dioxide, as the requirements differ depending on its intended use.”
Over the coming years, the legislation will not differentiate between which source is used. Instead, EU regulations will require fossilised carbon to be phased out by 2040.
“During the phase-out period, a great deal of fossilised carbon will be emitted from these chimneys anyway, so we might as well make use of it. However, it’s important that CCU doesn’t become an excuse for continuing to use fossil fuels, because they reach the atmosphere eventually, albeit with a ‘delay’ as they end up in another product first,” says Erik.
There are different technologies for converting carbon dioxide into products. Most of them involve the use of hydrogen. Another example is direct electrochemical conversion, which can be used to produce chemicals and other substances for use in other manufacturing processes. The problem is that regardless of the technology used, a great deal of energy is consumed. Energy that was previously sourced directly from oil and coal but that must now be supplied in the form of renewable electricity.
“A great deal of energy is required to enable these types of processes. And as long as fossil fuels aren’t associated with additional costs for their climate impact, they’ll be cheaper. If we’re to see a change, we need to support the early adopters who take the greatest risks, as well as implement other political measures,” says Markus.
“Cheap, climate-friendly electricity production will be central to enabling such methods to compete. The thing about fossil fuels is that you get both carbon atoms and energy in the same package. When developing new products, we’ll need to add energy in other ways, which will mean renewable electricity.”
“However, here in the Nordic region, we’re in a particularly good position. We have the methods and relatively good access to fossil-free electricity.”