Carbon dioxide emissions have a pretty bad reputation. The dirtiest fuel -- coal -- still supplies nearly 40 percent of the electricity in the U.S. and even more in many developing countries. The good news is CO2 isn't always destructive. Carbon dioxide can be turned into the building blocks for all sorts of products that we use every day.
Wyoming, a state heavily dependent on coal for jobs and revenue, has joined the furious race to control carbon -- with the twin goals of slowing climate change and keeping its coal on the market.
One of the state's latest efforts is a $15 million investment in a carbon testing center called the Integrated Test Center being built near Gillette, Wyoming. One of the ITC's first tenants will be teams competing for the Carbon XPrize, a $20 million challenge, sponsored by U.S. energy giant NRG Energy and Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance.
The goal of the competition is "…to develop breakthrough technologies that will convert CO2 emissions from powerplants and industrial facilities into valuable products like building materials, low emissions fuels, and other items that we use every day," the narrator of a promotional video explains.
In other words, the big vision is to remove carbon dioxide from the emissions that come out of a smokestack and put them to use. The technical term for this innovation is carbon utilization. It could be a critical part of worldwide efforts to deal with emissions, so researchers all over the country are working on it, as is the Department of Energy in collaboration with China. In Wyoming, the stakes are huge.
"I can't wait to see what great minds come up with to reimagine CO2. I believe the innovations will be breathtaking and make a profound difference in the future of coal," Governor Matt Mead said of the Integrated Test Center.
At the University of Wyoming, chemical engineering student Anthony Richard is experimenting with a variety of catalysts to convert CO2 and hydrogen into a chemical compound called methanol. Richard explains that methanol is used to make products like paints, plastics, vinegar, and other chemicals.
"If we can utilize the CO2 instead of releasing it into the atmosphere, that's going to be an important thing," Richard said. "And in addition to the context of climate change, the economics impacts of… not giving away something that we can then convert into a product that has value."
Carbon fiber, cement, plastics, fertilizer, dry ice, and the even the carbonation in soft drinks can be made from captured CO2. It can also be pumped underground to get more oil out, a process known as Enhanced Oil Recovery. The aim of the research goes way beyond the novelty of carbonating your soda. The Holy Grail is finding a way to pay for the process of carbon capture, a technology that removes emissions right out of the smokestack. It is expensive and, ironically, uses a lot of energy in the process. Simon Bennett, an analyst with the International Energy Agency, said offsetting those costs with carbon products is a seductive option.
"Technology gets provided, consumerism will do the rest and that's a very, very attractive thing," Bennett said.
The current market for captured CO2 is small, Bennett explains. According to the IEA, the industrial market for captured CO2 is around 200 million tons per year. In comparison, in 2013, CO2 emissions from energy use were about 35 billion tons.
"The willingness to pay for CO2 to use it in industry is really not stacking up in the current market context," Bennett said.
Despite the odds, and a serious push from many nations to drastically cut down coal usage, coal-dependent economies all over the world are hoping that low-carbon technology will allow the world to keep burning coal for electricity. Bridging the gap will take time, money, and government support -- three huge obstacles to a low-carbon future.
Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.