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Climate Change

Ask Sam: Can We Use Carbon Dioxide To Make Stuff?

Carbon Engineering

Every other Friday on Morning Edition NHPR’s Sam Evans-Brown tracks down answers to questions about the environment and outdoors for our listeners in a segment we call “Ask Sam."

Daniel from Sonora, Mexico asks: “Is there a way we can use carbon dioxide, so we can get rid of global warming? Like using it for energy?”


Indeed, there are a lot of start-ups out in the world that are trying to do exactly that, and I spoke to one of them: the co-founder of a company called Opus 12, Etosha Cave

“At scale there would be many different ways in which we utilize CO2,” she said, “There would be CO2 being utilized for cement. We’re wearing clothing and items that were made from CO2. We’re flying 200 passenger airplanes that have carbon neutral liquid fuels in it.”

Carbon is the basic building block of life on planet earth. (Dear reader, we are called “carbon-based lifeforms” in sci-fi movies, after all.) The technical challenge is that one of the reasons carbon is the basic building block of life is that it forms very strong stable chemical bonds, and it’s energy intensive to break those apart. 

Opus 12 uses catalysts and electricity to do that. Once the CO2 is deconstructed, they plan to make it into three molecules. 

  1. Ethylene: which is part of polyethylene, which is the most common plastic in use today. 

  2. Methane: which is natural gas. 

  3. Carbon Monoxide, which is the molecule that will probably be the first to be profitable.

“It’s the main molecule that can become jet fuel,” Cave explains, “It can become diesel fuel or even gasoline. It can be used to make a subset of polymers that go into consumer products. So for example, your iphone charger has a case that is made from polycarbonate. That can be made from carbon monoxide.” 
A lot of these companies are starting by aiming at fuel, because as the founder of one of these start-ups has tweeted, companies “will go where the market points, and it points to fuel.” 

The disclaimer here should be that all of these technologies are in VERY early stages. “I think in a lot of these cases, we can do it today, but we just can’t do it a cost that makes sense,” says Peter Minor, who works for Carbon180, a non-profit focused on technologies and policies that would remove CO2 from the atmosphere, “You don’t want to fill up your car for $12 a gallon or $50 a gallon.” 

However, there are markets where more expensive fuels can make sense. OPUS 12 is looking to help the Airforce make its own fuel at remote bases in order to limit fuel convoys, since they are vulnerable to attack.

This is reminiscent of how the solar industry started with markets where electricity was very expensive — offshore oil rigs and remote water pumping — in order to bridge to the point where economies of scale could drive down its cost. 

Finally, let’s not forget that there already is an incredibly common way to use CO2 that we’ve been doing for all human history: building things out of wood. As long as a wooden product is preserved and not allowed to rot, that’s captured carbon emissions, my friend.

Sam Evans-Brown, is host of NHPR’s Outside/In which you can subscribe to where-ever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to submit a question you can record it as a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to oustidein@nhpr.org, OR call the hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER, OR submit it here. 

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