Earth Day 2019 – A look at carbon negative and carbon capture technologies, advancements, and possibilities

April 21, 2019 |

Some of us were born already, some of us just a twinkle in someone’s eye, but 49 years ago history was made with the very first Earth Day. What was a nationwide celebration and peaceful demonstrations for environmental reform in the U.S. by some estimated 20 million Americans, Earth Day events have now expanded to over 193 countries and more than a billion people every year.

The background

There is good reason for a day to bring attention to earthly issues like climate change and the rise of carbon dioxide. Just look at this chart from NASA:


According to NASA:

“Levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere are higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years. In 2013, CO2levels surpassed 400 ppm for the first time in recorded history. This recent relentless rise in CO2 shows a remarkably constant relationship with fossil-fuel burning, and can be well accounted for based on the simple premise that about 60 percent of fossil-fuel emissions stay in the air.”

“If fossil-fuel burning continues at a business-as-usual rate, such that humanity exhausts the reserves over the next few centuries, CO2 will continue to rise to levels of order of 1500 ppm. The atmosphere would then not return to pre-industrial levels even tens of thousands of years into the future. This graph not only conveys the scientific measurements, but it also underscores the fact that humans have a great capacity to change the climate and planet.”

Scared yet?

The top 5 CO2 producing countries in the world are China, the U.S., India, Russia, and Japan, and according to Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientists, levels of CO2 reached a startling record in February of this year…earlier in the year than expected making it even rarer and unexpected.

“In most years, the previous maximum is surpassed in March or April. The February record breaking is a measure of just how fast CO2 has been rising in the past months,” said Scripps CO2 Group Director Ralph Keeling, in a statement. The suddenness of this year’s record is the result of “the combination of weak El Nino conditions and unprecedented emissions from fossil-fuel burning,” according to Keeling. This year’s carbon dioxide level is expected to peak around 415 parts per million in May.

While deforestation, agriculture and fossil fuel use are the primary sources of CO2, some say don’t bother playing the blame game since we can’t change the past, we can only change the future.

So let’s talk about that. What are we doing? What else can we do?

Carbon negative crops

Some people celebrate Earth Day by planting a tree, but how about planting hemp or miscanthus instead? Both are considered carbon negative crops and very promising for biofuels, bioplastics, biochemicals, and many other biobased products for today’s world.

Hemp, which can be used for ethanol, biodiesel, and more, “remediates the soil it grows in, which basically means that it cleans the soil by extracting numerous pollutants and heavy metals from contaminated soil,” according to Green Camp. “It was even used in Chernobyl to reduce radioactivity.”

Green Camp makes a big claim too, saying “It is the most efficient carbon-negative crop, which means it absorbs larger quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) per acre, compared to all other commercial crops or forests.” Some other benefits of hemp for our earth from Green Camp include:

“Compared to corn, hemp has almost double-yields, which means that using hemp produces twice as much ethanol. It also uses ⅓ of water compared to corn, and requires no pesticides and herbicides (a naturally disease-free crop), unlike corn which has high pesticide/herbicide requirements.”

“Hemp is a far better solution for the production of paper compared to trees, because it has a fantastic photosynthesis rate, which means it grows more rapidly, and also that it uses more carbon dioxide in the process. Hemp requires only 3 to 4 months to fully develop, unlike trees which of course need years to fully mature.”

Maybe that is why Pacific Biodiesel is planning on expanding to hemp, or why Levi’s is now making “cottonized hemp” for some of their denim products, or why hemp is being called one of the most versatile crops ever, or why hempcrete, a carbon-negative material, is being looked at as a building material and replacement for concrete.

As for miscanthus, it sounds almost as good as hemp in terms of CO2 benefits. It only “needs cultivation, planting and weed control – once in at least 15 years – perhaps 25 years – plus harvesting and loading on a truck every year from year 2 onwards,” according to Miscanthus NZ. “There is also no waste to be disposed of with Miscanthus. There is no need to cultivate the soil again, no need for ongoing weed control, no need to replant, no need for fertiliser in most cases. The soil benefits too because it is not disturbed again for years. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from growing Miscanthus of therefore a lot lower than alternatives.”

“As long as the crop continues to be grown and harvested, the amount of carbon stored in the underground rhizome system together with the amount of carbon stored in the continually increasing soil organic matter is quite significant – perhaps in the order of 2 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year.”

Not as far ahead in terms of market as hemp, miscanthus shows promise. A recent $2.5 million private investment boosts Terravesta and their miscanthus plantings, and some research at University of Illinois is looking at how to better grow it in colder climates.

Carbon negative and carbon capture technologies

If you don’t have some hemp or miscanthus handy to plant this year for Earth Day, let’s talk about some carbon negative technologies.

There’s the usual carbon capturing folks we usually think of like LanzaTech, who say “no carbon left behind,” but there are other newcomers and carbon go-getters out there giving us hope too.

There’s Oberon Fuels which makes DME and methanol from various methane and carbon dioxide sources, using its proprietary small-scale process. They are facilitating the growth of the DME transportation industry by converting biogas and other hydrocarbon rich waste streams to higher valued commodities such as DME.

Opus 12 developed a device that recycles CO₂ into cost-competitive chemicals and fuels. Their technology bolts onto any source of CO₂ emissions, and with only water and electricity as inputs, transforms that CO₂ into some of the world’s most critical chemical products. Opus 12 was one of six clean energy startups selected from around the country to be incubated in the first cohort of the prestigious Cyclotron Road program at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

As reported in the Digest in 2017, ExxonMobil is putting some R&D time and money investment into carbon capture technologies as well. And Shell has said they are going carbon negative with their commercial-scale deal with SBI that gives them access to a fuel that emits minus 14 grams of CO2 per megajoule of energy, instead of the usual 94 grams of CO2 that petroleum fuel emits.

BASF has ambitious goals like achieving CO2-neutral growth until 2030, a dedicated Carbon Management program, and new innovations when it comes to CO2 as well. As reported in The Digest in January, they launched four groundbreaking projects for CO2-reduced future production processes – new catalysts, hydrogen, olefins, sodium acrylate and more.

BASF is also presenting a new approach for using CO2 as a chemical feedstock: the production of sodium acrylate from ethylene and CO2. Sodium acrylate is an important starting material for superabsorbents, which are widely used in diapers and other hygiene products. A few years ago, researchers at the BASF-supported Catalysis Research Laboratory (CaRLa) at the University of Heidelberg were able for the first time to successfully close the catalyst cycle for this reaction.

Proton Power developed carbon-negative, low-cost hydrogen power. As Proton Power CEO Sam Weaver explains: “This process is carbon-negative, producing hydrogen gas or liquid fuels, plus a high temp biochar that is very stable in the ground. It’s a high PH (10-11) biochar with a surface area like an activated carbon.” Here’s the big takeaway: “Fundamentally, if we can get feedstock lower than $40/ton we can be lower than gas as the lowest cost producer of electricity.”

In July 2018, the Digest reported on a new €7 million EU Horizon 2020-funded research project, that was kicked-off with intentions of supporting EU leadership in CO2 re-use technologies. BIOCON-CO2 aims to re-use excess CO2 produced from the iron, steel, cement and electric power industries to create value-added chemicals and plastics. This will be achieved by developing a versatile range of conversion techniques using low-energy biological systems such as anaerobic microorganisms, aerobic microorganisms and enzymes to produce key chemical products including industrial acids and alcohols.

Speaking of government goals, Sweden has a goal of going carbon-neutral by 2045, followed by negative emissions thereafter. Maersk, Danish shipping leader, also pledged to go carbon-neutral by 2050.

In Finland, the Digest reported in 2017 that Helsinki airport was going achieve carbon neutrality earlier than its expected 2020 date thanks to using biofuel in all ground vehicles and a new 500kWp solar array.

R&D abounds

It seems carbon is getting lots of attention in the research areas too, as a promise of a better future for all of us and our planet. Just last week, University of Queensland researchers said they created a carbon negative way of generating power from biofuels that does not produce GHG gases at all. Using gasification, they say their method becomes carbon negative when combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS) methods.

“We suggested using a chemical method for carbon capture because it is the most cost-effective,” said University of Queensland PhD candidate Liang Cao. “The chemicals are used to recycle the carbon dioxide and store it and the chemicals can be reused.”

Chris P. Nielsen, Executive Director of the Harvard-China Project and co-author of the study said, “First, small amounts of biofuel could be used to reduce the net positive carbon emissions. Then, the system could grow toward carbon neutrality and eventually to a carbon-negative system.”

In February 2018, the Digest reported that Ohio State devised a process that under certain circumstances can convert coal, shale gas and biomass into electricity or syngas, while consuming carbon dioxide at the same time. In some cases, the technology not only consumes the full amount of carbon dioxide it produces, but also additional carbon dioxide from outside sources – and that’s the carbon negative moment.

Argonne National Labs GREET model is showing that under certain circumstances R-CNG produced from anaerobic digestion of food waste is net-carbon negative over its lifecycle, including production, use and avoided emissions. That means making and using it actually results in lower atmospheric GHG than if the fuel were never made or used.

In April 2018, the Digest reported on the $20 million Carbon XPRIZE finalists, which were quite an interesting bunch. The goal of the XPRIZE is to challenge teams to transform the way the world addresses CO2 emissions through breakthrough circular carbon technologies that convert carbon dioxide emissions from power plants into valuable products such as enhanced concrete, liquid fuels, plastics and carbon fiber. And that’s just what many of those companies are doing.

Bottom Line

This is but a sampling of carbon negative and carbon capturing technologies out there already in market and being developed. There are many pioneers out there working on solving this crucial problem. The downside – it’s a global problem that doesn’t care about country borders or boundaries or races or gender, but the good news is as a human species, we have the ability to “think globally, act locally” and develop new methods, new technologies, new ideas for addressing CO2 that could in fact save our planet and save ourselves.

We think Dr. Marcius Extavour, XPRIZE senior director of Energy and Resources got it on point when he told The Digest last April, “We think carbon capture itself is a huge topic. These teams are showing us amazing examples of carbon conversion and literally reimagining carbon. The diversity of technologies on display is an inspiring vision of a new carbon economy.” We agree, and that gives us hope on this 49th Earth Day.

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