Carbon capture, usage and storage: Interview with professors Larry Baxter, Paitoon Tontiwachwuthikul and Berend Smit

A factory under a cloudy sky

Description automatically generated

Carbon capture, usage and storage is considered one of the key technologies in our fight against climate change, but most people are still unaware of it. Mrinal Abhinav and I had the opportunity to interview three leading experts on their research work and on the issues surrounding this technology: professor Larry Baxter from Brigham Young University, Professor Paitoon Tontiwachwuthikul from the University of Regina, and Professor Berend Smit from Berkeley and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Here is what they had to say.

The 2016 Paris Climate Agreement marked the start of nearly 200 countries’ efforts to curb their greenhouse gas emissions, in order to limit the current increase in global temperatures. One of the climate targets, as set out by the IPCC, is reaching “net-zero” emissions by 2050, meaning that 100% of emissions will have to be withdrawn from the atmosphere by then (read more about it here).  

Scientists believe that reaching net-zero by 2050 will probably not be achieved on time with renewables alone, explains professor Tontiwachwuthikul. Different technologies will be needed, and Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS) is considered one of them. 

What exactly is Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS)?

A close up of a logo

Description automatically generated
Schematic representation of CCUS

Carbon capture is an emissions reduction technology consisting of capturing CO2 from industrial pollution sources (or directly from the atmosphere). The CO2 is then compressed and stored underground (CCS) or, alternatively, it can be used for other purposes (CCU). Hence the term CCUS. 

The IEA estimates that CCUS facilities around the world currently capture 35 Million tonnes of CO2 per year, roughly the equivalent of Ireland’s 2017 emissions. But how does carbon capture work? In a nutshell: a solvent captures CO2 and then releases it upon heating to allow recycling, explains professor Tontiwachwuthikul. 

The experts on carbon capture

A person standing in front of a tree posing for the camera

Description automatically generated
Paitoon Tontiwachwuthikul

Professor Paitoon Tontiwachwuthikul

Professor Paitoon Tontiwachwuthikul, from the University of Regina, is the co-founder of the Clean Energy Technology Research Institute in Canada and does research on carbon capture solvent, design and operation. 

He has been working on carbon capture process optimization since moving to Canada in 1991. “At first it was just a job”, he explains. But then he became involved in the Weyburn-Midale project in Saskatchewan: the world’s greatest project to use CO2 for enhanced oil recovery and underground storage (read more about it here). “CO2 is a supercritical fluid and it can be used to move the oil”, he says. If it can be injected underground to facilitate oil recovery, why not leave it there for good?

Professor Larry Baxter

Our second expert is Professor Larry Baxter, from Brigham Young University. He came up with an innovative way of doing carbon capture while serving a sabbatical in Denmark. As of today, he has done £26M dollars’ worth of funded research on cryogenic carbon capture (CCC), a process that is half as expensive and about half as energy intensive as its traditional counterparts. 

What professor Baxter is developing is a built-on technology that can be added to any process that generates CO2, without the need to rebuild infrastructure. And it brings other environmental benefits, too: it captures other pollutants such as SOx and NOx and it recovers water from flue gas, significantly reducing water demands.

Professor Berend Smit

A person looking at the camera

Description automatically generated
Berend Smit

Our third expert is Professor Berend Smit, from the University of Berkeley and EPFL. He does research around finding new materials for carbon capture and storage since around 2008. Together with Jeff Reimer, Curt Oldenburg, and Ian Bourg, he authored the textbook “Introduction to Carbon Capture and Sequestration”. 

But how did he get into carbon capture? “When I moved from the University of Amsterdam to Berkeley” he says, “I wanted to do something new”. He got involved with the Energy Frontier Research Centre (EFRC). “They said: CO2 is not going to go away anytime soon. If you want to work on something, that may actually be a very good thing to do”, he adds. So he started writing a proposal for them. 

The issues:

Carbon capture is a pretty energy-intensive process, no matter how you capture it” says Professor Baxter. 

Energy and money are interchangeable. A process that uses more energy costs more”, explains Professor Tontiwachwuthikul. In carbon capture, he continues, the more steam you need to heat up the solvent, the more expensive it becomes to capture CO2“If carbon capture costs more than paying a carbon tax, then the easiest thing is to just pay the tax. But if you were to capture the CO2 and store it at a cheaper price, you would do that”.

Today, there are broadly 300 different solvents that can be used for carbon capture. “One solvent alone won’t cut it. We need to mix different technologies”, he adds. In the next 5 to 10 years, the goal of professor Tontiwachwuthikul and his team is to mix various technologies in order to reduce the energy consumption and bring down the cost to 30 dollars per tonne of CO2 captured. “This way, a lot more people would do this”.

“CO2 is a waste product. If you are not willing to pay for it, we will never solve the problem. Every waste product costs money to treat” says professor Smit. He believes that the we can overcome the public cost of carbon capture, but that unwillingness to pay for it is one of the main problems surrounding the implementation of this technology. “All the technologies are there. We can use them. We just need to start”. The other problem, according to Prof Smit, would be the need for global participation in carbon capture.

The road to net-zero

A view of a city next to a body of water

Description automatically generated
Renewable energy and CCUS: is this what the future will look like?

“There are very few reasons not to like solar energy, but the problem with it is that you need to store it, and you make it significantly more expensive”, explains Professor Smit. On the other hand, according to Professor Baxter, carbon capture “has the potential to solve the energy storage issues associated with intermittent renewables”.

Professor Tontiwachwuthikul explains that moving to a low-carbon economy is going to take us a long time. “Today, gasoline and jet fuels are still the preferred alternatives to power big trucks and cargo ships”. To repress this, he says, will be very difficult. “We need to be practical”, he adds, “carbon capture can be a breaching”.

Furthermore, we can find innovative ways to utilize the captured CO2. Professor Tontiwachwuthikul says we can store carbon dioxide permanently in concrete at a reasonable cost. This also increases the material’s strength (read more about it here). A win-win situation!

“We are too addicted to fossil fuels and they are not going to disappear anytime soon”

These are the words of Professor Smit when he explains to us that carbon capture is not 100% sustainable, but it is still better than keeping up with business as usual and doing nothing. In fact, he says, what people may not realise is that CO2 does not disappear from the atmosphere once you stop emissions. Instead, it stays there for thousands of years, with the potential to affect future generations for centuries to come. For this reason, he says, it is unacceptable to say “we don’t care”. “The CO2 needs to go down, that’s the most important thing”.

Carbon capture is the way forward

According to all three experts, a mix of renewables and negative emission technologies such as carbon capture, usage and storage could be a balanced way forward to reach net-zero by 2050. “Carbon capture is an essential part of the solution, not just an option”, says professor Baxter, “it is not the only one or the most complete, but it is one of the most important ones”. 

In order to recognize the beneficial impact that they are having on the environment through their work, we selected professors Larry Baxter, Paitoon Tontiwachwuthikul and Berend Smit to be part of our Fairforce List “Top Researchers in Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage Technologies”.

Technology and Sustainability: the two ingredients of innovation

Technology is a key tool in a company’s innovation process. Once upon a time, rethinking your business model from a digital view was just a possibility or competitive advantage. Today, it is a necessity to survive in an ever-changing environment. So, can technology teach us lessons about the rise of sustainability in business?

Sustainability is another ingredient which allows companies to innovate their business model and enhance their competitive advantage. That is, to make a profit, but to do so by generating a positive impact on society and the environment. The way that businesses could improve the world and the lives of the people who live there has always fascinated me. It has also dictated the academic path I have followed, focusing on sustainable practices in management.

To better understand the importance of this strategy, just think of the success of companies such as TOMS and BlaBlaCar. Their business models allowed them to help society and the environment. It also allowed them to increase visibility and enter saturated markets while saving costs. They both planned their business models and strategies to contribute to a better world and, so far, it is paying off. 

What does it take to rethink business models with a view to being sustainable? 

To this question, I don’t think there is a universal answer or formula. However, looking at what I have learnt so far I could come up with two crucial factors:

  1. A new mentality

It is important to understand that to face a transformation process, you need to change your mentality starting from the market itself and not the product. Try to get out of business logic to think with the mind of the audience. Knowing what drives consumers to sustainable products and why is the key.

  1. Motivated people

Change begins and ends with people. Within the company, the motivation behind the change of direction must be clear and shared all over the supply-chain. If the members of your organisation do not believe in sustainability and technology then change will never happen. 

I  joined Fairforce because it represents the perfect intersection of technology and sustainability. I am very proud to be part of this community and I am sure that we will accomplish great things; we have a new mentality and plenty of motivated people!

What is a Carbon Handprint?

A carbon handprint is simply the positive environmental impact of a product or service throughout its life cycle.

We spoke to Saara Tamminen, a leading climate solutions specialist at Sitra. According to Saara, a carbon handprint is the future “climate benefits or using a product, process or service to avoid the emissions”. 

You may have heard of carbon footprints; both terms are related. A carbon footprint is the current, negative state of emissions of a product or service. Moreover, a carbon footprint is defined as the sum of green house gas (GHG) emissions and removals in a product system, over the entire lifetime of a product.

Conversely, a core principle behind is that it only measures the effect you have on others. That means reducing your own footprint is not a handprint. Rather, a carbon handprint is “created by a state, company, association or individual human being for another entity,” according to Tamminen. You can only achieve a handprint by helping others (e.g. customers and businesses that you work with) to lower their carbon footprint.

Tamminen shared with us some examples. It could be companies delivering products with a lower carbon footprint than the competition. It may mean individuals influencing their companies, and even their relatives, to lower their carbon footprint.

As a result, understanding and measuring carbon footprints are important to understand carbon handprints. However, we do not stop there. When you measure a carbon footprint, your goal is to reduce it until it is at zero. The handprint is more powerful in guiding decision-making. There is no limit to its size, or to the positive impacts that can be achieved. “You could say that your carbon footprint measures your impact on the environment. Your carbon handprint measures how the changes you have done in order to reduce the impact on the environment of others, such as your customers”, says Daniel Collado-Ruiz, Ambassador at Fairforce.

How can we calculate a Carbon Handprint?

Tamminen recommends that we follow the guide by the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT). The guide defines four steps for the process:

  1. Identification of the operating environment: customer, potential handprint contributors and baseline
  2. Defining life cycle assessment (LCA) requirements: functional unit, system boundaries
  3. Quantification of the carbon handprint (which includes calculating the carbon footprint of your solution and of the baseline)
  4. Review and communication of results
A fictional example of carbon handprint framework for bread packaging used in different bakeries.
Carbon handprint’s framework
A fictional example of  a framework for bread packaging used in different bakeries. Source: Carbon Handprint Guide, VTT

Why should a company calculate a Carbon Handprint?

According to Tamminen, carbon handprints can be a clear competitive advantage. “If you show how this product can help the customer to reduce their carbon footprint, it adds value and demand for your product over other products. This represents the baseline.” It can also be a strong influencing factor for any other interested party like other organizations, industries, employees, communities or political decision-makers.

The potential benefits for businesses can derive from publishing their carbon handprint include: 

  • Marketing and emphasising the company’s sustainability efforts 
  • Innovation by identifying new needs for products or services
  • Calculations for carbon offsets (Carbon Capture Use – CCU/ Carbon Capture Storage – CCS)
  • Ability to provide information about how much customers are reducing their carbon footprint

“It is, however, important to strive for transparency. Businesses should avoid marketing false information about environmental impacts to prevent green washing”, says Tamminen. So, companies using their handprint to gain a competitive advantage should do so honestly and openly.

It’s an attitude, as well as a methodology

Carbon handprint represents an attitude of solving the problem of global warming together. As a result, this is a strength compared the measurement of carbon footprints.

“Fairforce was established to increase carbon handprint”, says Antti Kosunen, Fairforce Ambassador. In fact, Fairforce’s core mission is directing attention towards solutions to help businesses become greener.

Do you want to join us and increase your carbon handprint? Here at Fairforce, we connect professionals and green companies to increase their carbon handprint, through fair and profitable business. Visit our site to sign up and find opportunities to use your business skills for the environment.

Four ways businesses are tackling food waste

Food waste is one big challenge hindering sustainability in the food industry. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, we waste around 1.3 billion tonnes of food globally per year. That’s 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption. This has a significant impact on the atmosphere, releasing 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases. Not only that, trillions of gallons of water per year and 1.4 billion hectares of land are squandered due to lost produce. However, businesses committed to protecting our planet have been trying to solve the problem of food waste, whilst increasing their carbon handprint.

Four ways businesses are tackling food waste

Food waste is being saved and repurposed thanks to some businesses

1. By developing the supply chain

Food is often wasted at the beginning of the production process as a result of poor storage facilities. In fact, this causes the spoiling of around 45% of produce in developing countries. Nigerian enterprise Cold Hubs has been working to fix this problem. By using off-grid, solar powered refrigerators, they prolong the freshness of perishables and reduce post-harvest food wastage. Cold Hubs has the potential to save 80% more food whilst increasing profits for farmers by 25%.

2. By improving packaging

We have all considered throwing out a forgotten snack on the day of its use-by date. Thanks to the people at Mimica, we can know for sure whether our food is still fresh. Their new technology shows whether or not a product is fine to eat using a temperature sensitive indicator label. However, it’s not all about improving packaging. There are now many self-service shops across the world which have ditched packaging all-together. Even UK supermarket Waitrose is testing product refill stations in some stores.

3. By finding homes for unwanted food

Some food destined for the supermarket shelves never makes the cut. We often discard ugly and misshapen fruits and vegetables, despite their value. This value doesn’t go unnoticed by the people at Oddbox. By compiling packages of imperfect produce and delivering them to homes and offices, the UK based startup saves ‘wonky veg’ from going straight in the trash. But don’t worry if you’ve over ordered; use food waste app Olio to send the surplus on to others who would like to take it off your hands. So far, Olio has saved almost 2 million portions of food. 

4. By creating new value 

When businesses can’t re-home produce, there is a yet another way to give forgotten food items new life and make them profitable.

Rubies in the Rubble uses fresh fruit and veg that would otherwise go to waste to make condiments. So far, the company has rescued 4,324,238 pieces of fruit and veg, which equates to 173,534 tonnes of produce. That offsets 164.2 tonnes of CO2, which is enough to drive a lorry 200,000 miles.

By reducing wasted produce, we can mitigate climate change. New concepts are also helping to curb global hunger and move towards a sustainable food system. Have these innovative business ideas inspired you to tackle the problem of food waste and increase your carbon handprint? Read more about our community here to find out how Fairforce can help.