New research finds carbon can be used to reduce emissions and waste

Posted on Tuesday, September 27th, 2011 in News, Publications| Share this article

Researchers from the University of Sheffield have led a new report that provides the first comprehensive technical and economic assessment of carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) as a viable but poorly understood option for reducing carbon emissions.

The Centre for Low Carbon Futures released the research, which has found that rather than treating CO2 as waste, as is the case with carbon capture and storage (CCS), the CCU process converts it into commercially viable products such as bio-oils, chemicals, fertilisers and fuels. These could replace fossil fuel based products, further reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improve waste treatment.

CCU is a process that uses waste CO2 as a chemical feedstock for the synthesis of other chemicals, as a chemical source of carbon for mineral carbonation reactions to produce construction materials, and as a nutrient and CO2 source to make algae grow and supply fuels and chemicals. However, the technology is in the research and development phase, it is not yet commercialised on a large scale and requires more investment.

Polymer Centre member Professor Peter Styring from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering led the research: “The UK needs to invest in more research and development for carbon capture and utilisation and investors need to be made aware of the potential benefits of the technology so that barriers can be brought down. Our report shows that all CCU options could be relevant to the UK and given its business -oriented academic community, the UK could benefit from commercialisation of the technologies involved.

“The UK has set itself some challenging greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and in tough economic times cheap and effective solutions are needed to help meet such goals.”

Until now the favoured technology has been carbon capture and storage (CCS) where CO2 is captured from an industrial or power-sector source and stored in a geological formation. However, significant drawbacks have been shown in recent years. High investment costs, uncertainty over potential storage capacity, possibilities for leakage, increased public resistance and energy costs all mean that alternative and complementary options must also be considered.

Professor Styring continued: “The rate at which CCS projects are currently deployed and the emissions reductions they achieve may be insufficient to reach the 80 percent reduction in global CO2 emissions required by 2050. With such an urgent climate problem facing us, serious consideration must be given to alternative and complementary technologies such as CCU.”

The report highlighted that CCU can be profitable with short payback times on investment. The report also stated that despite this, the UK is behind most developed countries in terms of investment and focus on the technology with the majority of research funding directed towards CCS. For example, the UK is investing £1 billion in the first CCS demonstration project, but currently has no plans for investment in demonstration scale CCU technologies unlike in Germany, USA and Australia.

These countries have spotted the potential for CCU with the US spending US $ 1bn on research and the German government investing €118M in a project with Bayer to research the use of carbon dioxide as a raw material. The research shows that the UK could risk missing a significant opportunity to benefit from the commercialisation of this technology if it delays action.

The report includes some concrete policy recommendations to help accelerate research, development and deployment of CCU in the UK:

  • Through a strategic policy group, investors could be made aware of potential benefits of CCU and barriers could be brought down
  • Whenever CCS is proposed, the possibility of CCU should also be considered
  • Internationally an IEA Implementing agreement on CCU could be founded
  • A global Technology Roadmap should be initiated
  • CCU could be included in the IPCC Best Practices for greenhouse gas accounting for national greenhouse gas inventories to the UNFCCC

The report is a collaboration between CO2Chem, a UK research council project aimed at developing a UK community towards a sustainable chemical feedstock supply by 2050, the University of Sheffield in the UK and Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN).