Adding the “U”: The role of carbon capture, utilization and storage in developing a circular economy

Even the simplest actions can contribute to a much larger story. Imagine, for example, reaching for a bar of soap. You might consider its scent or the store wherein the soap was purchased, but it’s far less likely that you’d stand at the sink contemplating the soap’s chemical makeup. For all you know, that soap is made using captured carbon.

Carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) has earned itself a seat at the table as a key player in meeting the emissions targets outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and encourages innovators to find unique ways of transforming carbon into usable products.

One such example is the soap products created by a Calgary company. The founders of CleanO2 invented a technology called CARBiN-X, a decentralized carbon capture device that reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the heating industry. Around the size of two refrigerators, the CARBiN-X can be fitted to natural gas-powered boilers to reduce both energy use and GHG emissions. This is only one example of an ever expanding market.

The market is growing in part because CCUS isn’t a new concept. We’ve been capturing carbon from industrial processes and using it to create products like soda beverages since the 1930s and have been utilizing captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) since the 1970s. Because the cost of bringing a CCS project online remains in the hundreds of millions of dollars, EOR has acted as an incentive for companies exploring carbon capture, allowing for the continued extraction of oil from a reservoir that would otherwise be considered depleted. This adds value to the captured CO2, turning it into an asset rather than a liability.

The carbon is a liability not only because of its role as a greenhouse gas, but also because storing it is a challenging and expensive endeavour. Without a price on carbon, there is little incentive for companies to incur the cost of storing their CO2 and furthermore, there are still questions about whose responsibility it is to monitor the carbon once it has been injected back into a geologic formation.

For this reason, EOR currently makes up most of the “utilization” in CCUS and is likely to continue playing a key role in helping bring down the cost curve associated with the deployment of these technologies. But as companies and individuals around the world begin adding terms like “energy transition” and “energy transformation” to their daily repertoire, it’s important to consider the range of possibilities offered by CCUS.

While EOR has played a significant role in making a case for CCUS, we can’t continue to put all of our eggs in one basket. If we’ve learned anything after years of boom and bust cycles, it’s this: there is no silver bullet. Luckily, a number of Canadian entrepreneurs have acknowledged this fact and are focused on developing new utilization and carbon conversation technologies. Former Energy Futures Lab Fellow and the CEO of Carbon Upcycling, Apoorv Sinha, is one such example. To convert CO2 emissions into graphitic nanoparticles (for use in concrete, pharmaceuticals, etc), Carbon Upcycling is one of 10 finalists in the Carbon XPRIZE, which seeks to inspire and incentivize the development of new and emerging CO2 conversion technologies.

The Carbon XPRIZE is the perfect reminder that it’s time we begin looking at the many pathways CCUS has to offer as we continue navigating energy transition. While companies like CleanO2 work to create sustainable, everyday essentials, there are also other opportunities we can’t afford pass up.

One of those is blue hydrogen. While the economics of green hydrogen remain a challenge in Alberta, blue hydrogen could be delivered almost carbon free by pairing its production with carbon capture and storage. The most commonly used technology associated with the production of hydrogen from natural gas is Steam Methane Reforming (SMR). By adding CCS to SMR plants, emissions resulting from hydrogen production could be almost neutralized.

Most recently, a study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that the cost of producing blue hydrogen is only slightly higher than the cost of producing grey hydrogen. It’s also expected that CCUS technologies will become increasingly affordable as the cost of CO2 emissions rise, yielding an increasingly competitive market for blue hydrogen. While the production of green hydrogen in Alberta remains a long-term goal, CCS has a big part to play in helping kickstart the province’s hydrogen economy.

What CleanO2’s products and hydrogen both have in common is the way in which they can contribute to supporting a circular economy. In a circular economy, value can be added to what are currently considered waste streams by transforming waste into useful products.

By deploying CCS to capture CO2 from a process like Steam Methane Reforming or traditional oil and gas operations, we can start by driving down GHG emissions. But by adding the “U,” we can also move beyond a linear economy and away from the “take, make, waste” approach, using that carbon to create essential products like soap. This ability to transition towards a circular economy is, perhaps, CCUS’ greatest offering.

Note: Interested in learning more about CCUS? The Energy Futures Lab will be hosting an interactive discussion with the CEO of Clean O2, Jaeson Cardiff, on August 11 at noon MDT. This event is sponsored by Calgary Economic Development and is free and open to the public. You can register for the event here.