We are pumping fossil CO2 into the air at an alarming rate. Whether from burning of coal, or the wide spread use of oil in the form of petrol or diesel, fossil emissions remain extremely high and our climate is is struggling. In order to extract these fossil fuels, we mine them from deep below the earth. Since the first industrial revolution in the United Kingdom, men have been deep underground using brute force to mine coal and oil is sucked out of the ground all over the world at an alarming rate of 97 million barrels a day. (as of the end of 2015). As a side effect of the demand for fossil fuels, CO2 continues to be emitted into the atmosphere.
Sherburne County Coal-Fired Power Plant
Whilst the planet needs CO2 to function, the excess levels are putting strain on the climate. Part of the solution is to reduce fossil emissions, and place more of our energy burdens on renewable energy and clean fuels. One way of lowering fossil emissions is to recycle the excess CO2 we have already pumped into the atmosphere. Essentially, we could mine from above, rather than below the ground.
This is exactly what trees do. The process of photosynthesis turns CO2 and the suns energy into wood, which can then be burnt as a fuel. The process of photosynthesis is inefficient, with rooftop solar panels 10 times more efficient at turning the sun’s energy into electricity. Bernard Feringa, the Nobel laureate of 2016, advocates a technical approach to the circular economy. At the Lindau Nobel Prize laureate, Feringa argued that "The CO2 fixation by plants is presumably the largest chemical process in the world. In principle, we must also manage this.”
In recent years the technical approach has seen substantial breakthroughs that are enabling us to mine CO2, recycle it and turn it into fuel. Climeworks are one company that is already harvesting CO2 from the air commercially. Their project in Hinwil, Switzerland, removes around 900 tons of CO2 from the air and feeds it to a neighbouring greenhouse to increase the crop growing productivity.
The usage of CO2 in agriculture is not the only way in which recycled it can be used. CO2 is already being utilised to create a synthetic fuel called Blue Crude by Sunfire in Germany, who have recently announced that they will launch a big plant in Norway. Using CO2 and renewable energy to create fuel, which will then release the CO2 back into the air on combustion, is the ultimate example of the circular economy.
Blue Crude plants explained by Sunfire
CO2 as a raw material has various other industry uses. Anna Eibel explained that it is possible to synthesise acrylic acid, which is a starting material for many technically important plastics, including polymethylmethacrylate, (plexiglass), superglue and synthetic rubber. Also, again in the agricultural sector, CO2 can be reacted with ammonia to produce urea, which is important in fertilisers.
It is important that current technological advances, and the potential of future technology to remove carbon from the air, and reuse it as a raw material, does not stand in the way of advancement in renewable energy. Reduction of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere relies on a number solutions functioning together, including increasingly efficient renewable energy, CO2 recycling and use as a raw material, and more efficient transportation methods with synthetic fuel breakthroughs like that of Blue Crude.