by Andrew Symes, co-founder and CEO of OXCCU, a company specialising in converting CO₂ into fuels, chemicals, and plastics via novel catalysis.
As governments and corporations convene at COP28 to determine how they can collectively take climate action, the topic of decarbonization is coming back into focus. The bad news is big questions remain though as to how they will do it.
CO2 emitted from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and gas is the biggest contributor to global climate change. This is why so much emphasis has been put on electrifying as many of the sectors which currently use fossil fuels as possible, and doing it as fast as possible. However, not every sector can be electrified. For long-distance aviation fuels, plastics and chemicals, hydrocarbons are essential.
Hydrocarbons, which are organic compounds made up of hydrogen and carbon atoms, are the fundamental components of fossil fuels, and therefore widely viewed by the climate action community as detrimental to the Earth. But contrary to popular belief hydrocarbons are not inherently bad. Humans are made of hydrocarbons. Life is based on hydrocarbons, and a number of branches of chemistry and all of biology is based on hydrocarbons. When carbon and hydrogen are combined they create an array of unique materials with properties that are impossible to replicate using other elements. Their widespread use today combined with the lack of viable alternatives for certain sectors, makes finding sustainable hydrocarbon production options critical to reach net zero.
The good news is hydrocarbons can be detached from fossil fuels using biofuels or CO2 derived fuels, or a combination of the two, sometimes called power and biomass to liquids (PBtL). By making useful hydrocarbons from biomass and/or carbon dioxide with carbon that was recently captured from the air, rather than from fossil fuels, and releasing it back to the atmosphere as CO2 after use, hydrocarbon use recreates the natural carbon cycle.
Carbon Capture & Storage Vs. Carbon Capture & Utilization
This transition can’t happen over night though. So, in the meantime, whilst some fossil fuel use continues, what should we do with the billions of tons of fossil CO2 that continues to be emitted every year apart from simply taxing it? Upstream oil and gas companies have long declared carbon capture and storage (CCS) as the solution to fossil CO2 emissions. This is unsurprising, as it theoretically means the digging up of fossil fuels can continue indefinitely, as long as the CO2 emitted from fossil fuel use is captured where it is used, and then buried underground in deep geological storage. With CCS, fossil fuel demand remains strong and their upstream skills are needed twice, first to get the oil and gas out and then again to put the CO2 back in the ground.
Massive sums of money are going into carbon sequestration. But despite efforts over multiple decades, few projects are fully operational, and even though there have been recent record upstream oil and gas profits, enormous government subsidies are still required to do it. Serious questions remain about how feasible storing 100% of CO2 emissions underground is, where can it actually be done, what the costs are, who pays, how long will projects take, and who monitors them. There are also wider environmental considerations (e.g. leaks into freshwater aquifers if onshore or brine leakage into the ocean if offshore), whether there is public acceptance, and whether or not storage is actually permanent? Fossil fuel operations also routinely result in significant operational emissions, not least the leakage of methane – a very powerful greenhouse gas. So while burying fossil CO2 emission permanently underground seems like the simplest route to take, we do need to consider whether it is truly feasible and ultimately is it really the best we can do.
Instead fossil CO2 could be used. This process is called carbon capture and utilization (CCU). While using fossil CO2 captured from chimneys as a source of carbon for fuels, chemicals and plastics is not circular, the process substantially reduces total emissions. In this scenario, you’re recycling waste CO2 using hydrogen made from green electricity and water via electrolysis. You’re getting two uses out of some of the carbon you’ve dug up before it ends up in the atmosphere. This is good for renewables and the downstream assets which have access to them, but it would have a significant negative impact on oil and gas demand and hence the upstream oil and gas. Care needs to be taken to ensure that green electricity used is well matched or in surplus and not being diverted from where it is needed elsewhere to displace fossil fuels, but the new green hydrogen standards will assure this. Overall, doing this improves the world’s carbon efficiency, as you need to dig up less to supply the same amount of fuels or chemicals. While this isn’t circular or carbon neutral, it’s progress. And in terms of scaling, there’s one big fundamental difference with the utilization of CO2 compared to the storage of CO2, you have a high value product to sell.
While decarbonization is imperative to keep the world’s temperature from continually rising, it’s impossible for all sectors to exist without hydrocarbons. As renewable energy becomes more cost-effective, more regulatory support emerges, and both bio and synthetic hydrocarbon conversion technologies improve, it will be easier for a more circular carbon cycle to take shape, replicating what nature does with photosynthesis on an industrial scale. Humanity will always need hydrocarbons. However, we won’t always have to get them from fossil fuels.
The views and opinion expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Carbon Herald.