Human activities and industrial processes—like burning fossil fuels, cement production, and deforestation—have been causing a large production of emissions of carbon dioxide, polluting our planet Earth. With the continuance of these activities, and coupled with the world’s growing population, rest assured there will be no shortage of carbon dioxide. 

Cornell University chemical engineer Lynden Archer is positive, however, that carbon dioxide would no longer be a nuisance, but a gift...if the emissions could be captured and turned into chemical building blocks to make useful and valuable products.

Carbon Utilization vs. Carbon Sequestration

Capturing carbon dioxide from exhaust pipes at power plants and other emitters and storing it deep underground has been done for years, but this process turns out to be very expensive and impractical in the absence of large subsidies.

Carbon dioxide injected deep into saltwater aquifers beneath the sea floor off the Norwegian coast. Source: Statoil

However, scientists hope that they can profit by using the waste product as a raw material for creating something valuable. Several groups of engineers, scientists, and researchers aim to capture carbon dioxide emissions to produce polymers, alternative fuels, or industrial chemicals.

In order to achieve new mechanisms (or reactions) to use carbon dioxide as a chemical feedstock, Archer proposes in Science Advances that a fuel cell that generates electricity while converting carbon dioxide into a "commodity chemical" can do the job. He and his student Wadji Al Sadat built a prototype reactor that combines carbon dioxide with aluminum and oxygen, producing a material that can be used to make acids, rust removers, fabric dyes, and other industrial chemicals.

Also, these chemical reactions release energy that is captured by the fuel cell and the process appears to generate more electricity than it consumes.

Environmental Impact

Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative and a proponent of carbon sequestration, holds a different position as to the potential of carbon utilization to have a significant environmental impact. Getting value out of carbon dioxide in the form of commodity chemicals or energy, without putting more energy in somewhere in the life cycle of the product, is extremely difficult. The 2005 IPCC Special Report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage, of which Herzog was a lead author, argues that even if the chemical industry used carbon dioxide to make all its products, they couldn't sop up all the emissions.

Kendra Kuhl, co-founder of Opus 12, a startup in Berkeley, California, is fully aware that carbon utilization won't fully solve the world's problem of carbon dioxide emission, but says it is worth trying.

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