Forget Storing Carbon. Why Not Capture It And Make It Into Something Useful?

New equipment could let manufacturers use atmospheric carbon dioxide as a raw material

A carbon capture and storage plant in Germany. Vattenfall

Sooner rather than later, stopping the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will not be enough to stave off global climate change, and we'll need to begin pulling carbon out of the air. There are different ways of doing this, but one of the most discussed is carbon capture and storage—a still-future technology. The idea is to store excess carbon as a liquid underground, by chemically reacting it with subsurface rocks, or maybe in pores deep beneath the ocean floorAccording to New Scientist, though, schemes like these may be a bit of a waste.

For many in the chemical and manufacturing industries, carbon dioxide, or other simple carbon-based chemicals, is a core raw material used for making everything from plastic to glue to antifreeze to fertilzier. Rather than liquifying it and dumping it underground—a process that brings problems of its own, including very high costs—some companies are working on using atmospheric carbon dioxide as the raw material for manufacturing.

Liquid Light of Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, showed off its prototype CO2converter at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington DC last week. About the length and width of a coffee table, and a few inches thick, the module is a layer cake of steel and plastic. Inside it are catalysts that can produce more than 60 carbon-based chemicals, from just CO2 and electricity. By linking many of these devices together, a chemical plant could convert CO2 into hundreds of thousands of tonnes of products in a year, says co-founder Kyle Teamey.

Liquid Light, says New Scientist, has plans to make the base chemical, ethylene glycol, from carbon dioxide. Ethylene glycol is used to make polyester, plastic and Plexiglas. Other companies are working on using greenhouse gases to make other products.

While it's unlikely that carbon capture and manufacture would ever be able to eliminate the need for emissions mitigation or other storage strategies, finding a way to get an economic benefit from the pollution could help speed the adoption of those less practical technologies.

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