Industry should begin planning for the deployment of CO2 utilization systems

December 1, 2022
National Academies

Industry and Government Should Begin Planning Carbon Dioxide Utilization in Circular Economy, Says Report

DECEMBER 2022-WASHINGTON — Industry and government should begin planning for the deployment of carbon dioxide utilization systems — infrastructure and processes to transform CO2 into useful products — enabling a circular economy and in some cases durable removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Despite challenges in deploying CO2 utilization processes at present, CO2 utilization can play an important role in the future net-zero emissions economy. The report assesses the state of the infrastructure for CO2 transport, use, and storage, and identifies key opportunities to improve and expand on that infrastructure for utilization.

Transitioning to net-zero carbon emissions is an essential component of maintaining a stable, safe climate. Reaching net-zero will not mean eliminating carbon-based products and systems entirely, but rather ensuring that they are produced without adding net CO2 to the atmosphere. CO2 utilization is an approach for sustainably manufacturing carbon-based products through chemical conversion. Some CO2 utilization processes are already used to make products, including fertilizer and polymers.

“Though it is still a nascent industry, carbon dioxide utilization can effectively support the transition away from fossil carbon by providing pathways for sustainable synthesis of many carbon-based chemicals and materials that society needs,” said Emily A. Carter, Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, senior strategic advisor for sustainability science at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “However, care should be taken to ensure that the build-out of the industry’s infrastructure and transport systems involves early and ongoing community engagement.”  

Current Limitations  

Making carbon-based products from captured CO2 generally requires more energy than if using carbon from fossil fuels. The report finds that these high energy requirements, combined with a lack of incentives to produce net-zero emission products, currently limit the commercialization opportunities for CO2 utilization. There will also be limited opportunities to leverage existing CO2 capture and transport infrastructure for future CO2 utilization, as most of this infrastructure is used primarily in enhanced oil recovery, and therefore connects sources and sinks of CO2 that largely do not align with sustainable CO2 utilization opportunities. Repurposing natural gas pipelines for transporting CO2 is being considered but would require case-by-case analysis and retrofitting costs, the report notes.

Opportunities for CO2 Utilization

The report classifies products made through CO2 utilization into two groups based on their estimated lifetime, and says that these groups should have different requirements to ensure compatibility with a net-zero emissions system. Products with a lifetime of at least 100 years, including concrete, aggregates, and some polymers, can be considered durable CO2 storage options, and so can be sustainably produced with carbon from either fossil fuels or non-fossil sources. Products that decay and return CO2 to the atmosphere on shorter timespans, such as chemicals and fuels, must be derived from non-fossil carbon sources to be net-zero emissions compatible.  

Considering these sustainability criteria, and given current technologies and potential scale of deployment, there are two priority near-term opportunities for CO2 utilization infrastructure investment, the report says:

  • Sustainable aviation fuel may be important for eliminating net CO2 emissions from air travel and could be produced by combining CO2 byproduct from bioethanol plants with clean hydrogen.  

  • Captured CO2 from fossil or non-fossil sources can be mineralized to generate aggregates used for infrastructure such as roads and concrete for construction.

Infrastructure for CO2 Utilization  

There are a range of other promising CO2 utilization opportunities for the industry, according to the report, so capture and transport infrastructure built for carbon management in the coming years should be designed with flexibility in order to help meet the longer-term needs of the CO2 utilization industry as it develops. The report identifies several important considerations for designing infrastructure, including the following:

  • Project developers should consider the availability and accessibility of clean electricity, clean hydrogen, and water in their designs, as significant amounts of these resources are required for many CO2 utilization processes. Co-location of hydrogen production and CO2 utilization facilities should also be considered, due to the complexities of transporting and storing hydrogen.

  • Captured and purified CO2 can be transported by pipeline, rail, truck, ship, and barge. Multimodal transport infrastructure could be particularly beneficial for connecting emitters and capturers with distributed small-scale users as well as with larger industrial utilization hubs. Optimizing such a CO2 transport network to meet the needs of different utilization processes requires a systems-level analysis considering technological, environmental, economic, and societal factors.  

  • Industrial clusters that co-locate CO2 capture, utilization, and storage provide the capability to manage large CO2 volumes without the need for an extensive pipeline network. Such clusters should be developed using best practices for community engagement and incorporate other relevant industries such as hydrogen production, chemical and fuel manufacturing, and low-carbon power generation. In particular, the U.S. Department of Energy should consider co-location of at least one each of the hydrogen and direct air capture hubs authorized in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021. Such co-located hubs could create central locations where shared infrastructure and existing workforce can be leveraged to support use of carbon and hydrogen.

Economic, Environmental, and Societal Impacts

Widespread deployment of CO2 utilization to further a net-zero emissions economy may have significant environmental, economic, and societal impacts, the report says. Understanding the environmental impacts of CO2 utilization products will require a full life cycle assessment of those products, which includes the emissions associated with their feedstocks and wastes, and DOE should build on ongoing efforts to standardize life cycle analysis for CO2 capture, utilization, and storage projects.

CO2 utilization projects should, at an early stage of development, examine and address equity and justice implications, including the total costs and benefits to society, the report says. Projects should have sustained community engagement and address inequality, which may include terminating projects that do not receive local buy-in or for which regulators determine the equity implications are unacceptable.  

To ensure CO2 utilization aligns with societal goals such as net-zero emissions, policies should institute a CO2 emissions tax or trading scheme that incorporates the costs borne by society from greenhouse gas emissions into the full cost of using any technology, the report says. Policies should also incentivize knowledge creation with research investments and reduce costs and risks for early developers, rather than subsidize specific technologies.

Potential policies should also be analyzed to ensure they do not create perverse incentives ― for example, those that overly incentivize CO2 capture could create an unwanted incentive to produce emissions ― or excessively difficult regulatory environments, the report states. It also recommends that a single entity be responsible for guiding CO2 utilization project developers through the complex permitting process.

The report is the first of two; the second report will evaluate in more detail the potential markets for products derived from CO2 and coal waste; the economic, environmental, and climate impacts of CO2 utilization infrastructure; and research, development, and demonstration needs to enable commercialization of CO2 utilization technologies and processes.

The study, undertaken by the Committee on Carbon Utilization Infrastructure, Markets, Research and Development, was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.