Stakeholders in the carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) field have been promising a rapid, large-scale solution to the global warming problem. However, those promises ring hollow. CCS does not address the root cause of the impending climate catastrophe, a point that is so simple an ordinary pair of glasses can make it.
The carbon capture and sequestration field first caught public attention in the U.S. in 2003, when the George W. Bush administration inaugurated a project called FutureGen. It was designed to funnel carbon from an existing coal power plant in Illinois into a pipeline, and convey it to a permanent underground burial site.
In terms of climate action, the permanency of the FutureGen approach seemed to be a step up from an emerging practice in which captured carbon was injected into oilfields to improve well output. Somewhat ironically, though, the failure to participate in that market was one of the factors leading to the demise of FutureGen. After a series of cost overruns and reconfigurations, the Barack Obama administration pulled the plug on FutureGen in 2015.
The real problem is that CCS does nothing to interrupt the demand for fossil sources of fuel and energy. It simply sweeps up afterward. New research also suggests that CCS systems can be counterproductive due to the amount of energy needed to run them.
Captured carbon can be set to work in a more beneficial way, namely by deploying it to replace fossil sources for fuels, plastics and petrochemicals.
That gives rise to the question of where the supply of captured carbon would come from, if and when fossil fuels are no longer used to generate power. That would have been a good question just a few years ago. However, recent developments in carbon capture technology have provided pathways for recycling carbon from industrial processes. Excess carbon can also be extracted from ambient air.
Some of these technologies have been many years in the making, and are just now emerging into commercial use.
One interesting example is the company LanzaTech, which uses a microbial system to convert industrial waste gases into the chemical building blocks of fuels and plastics. LanzaTech received an assist from the Obama administration to develop its carbon recycling system for waste gas from steel mills. Since then it has branched out into other gases, including a a system to produce sustainable jet fuel from landfill biogas which won an award from the Energy Department.
A different pathway is illustrated by the carbon capture and recycling company Twelve. Its roots also go back to the Obama administration when graduate students at Stanford University developed a unique catalytic carbon conversion system powered by electricity.
With support from the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the company’s co-founders refined their process into an electrochemical reactor they call O12, which they describe as a “shiny black leaf” that mimics photosynthesis on an industrial scale.
“It uses proprietary catalysts to transform CO2 into new products, using just water and electricity as inputs,” Twelve explains. “Pure oxygen is our only byproduct. O12 achieves the same CO2-transforming power as 37,000 trees, or 64 football fields of dense forest, in a module the size of a suitcase.”
Twelve prefers to use the term “carbon transformation,” rather than carbon capture and recycling, to reflect its emphasis on weaning industrial chemistry from fossil inputs. “Carbon transformation provides an enduring carbon management solution by eliminating the need for fossil carbon in chemicals, materials and fuels,” according to the company.
Carbon capture and recycling has not gained much traction in the public eye, partly because it is still a small field, and partly because it takes place deep within the supply chain.
That could be about to change dramatically. Last week, the sustainable brand Pangaia announced a new line of sustainable eyewear featuring polycarbonate lenses made with Twelve’s carbon transformation technology.
“The new partnership was created to promote the use of climate-conscious materials,” Pangaia announced in a press statement, making it clear that the intention is to focus considerable energy on publicizing the new technology.
“Our goal is not only to showcase the endless possibilities of science-based solutions, but also to promote industry-wide adoption that will help scale technologies and help rid the world of fossil-fuel based polymers and over industrialized materials,” explained Dr. Amanda Parkes, Pangaia's chief innovation officer, in a statement.
The new lenses will be the first commercial use of carbon captured by Twelve.
The eyewear is also the first product to emerge from Pangaia’s newly announced Pangaia Lab innovation platform, which aims to support “the most groundbreaking innovations in materials science with the goal of promoting consumer education and industry-wide adoption that will help scale the brand's fight against climate change.”
Pangaia’s effort to raise public awareness about new carbon recycling technology comes at a critical time for climate policy in the U.S.
In its current iteration, President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate plan leans heavily on carbon capture for rapid action. That approach amounts to little more than wheel-spinning, enabling fossil energy extraction to continue at a pace that locks in catastrophic climate change.
Public- and private-sector pressure can make all the difference. The combination of corporate demand and public opinion has driven the market for renewable energy, and a similar dynamic can occur in the field of carbon transformation.
Forward-looking companies like Pangaia and Twelve have provided the blueprint for building public awareness about alternatives to CCS. Now it’s up to other manufacturers and supply chain stakeholders to take advantage of new sustainable technology and lead the way to a more sustainable future.
Images courtesy of Pangaia
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.