Oct. 18, 2018


‘Carbon Utilization’ Technologies Could Reduce Emissions by Turning Greenhouse Gases Into Useful Products; New Report Identifies R&D to Make Technologies More Commercially Viable

WASHINGTON -- A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine outlines a research agenda for improving the commercial viability of technologies that turn greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels into useful products such as fuels, construction materials, and chemicals. The report urges the U.S. government and private sector to support research and development to advance these technologies and coordinate their efforts.

“Carbon utilization technologies have a role to play in future carbon management, offering the potential to reduce emissions and in some cases generate positive economic returns,” said David Allen, chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report, and Gertz Regents Professor of Chemical Engineering and director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Resources at the University of Texas, Austin. 

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a way that limits increases in global temperature will require a range of approaches, the report notes. Some, such as expanding the use of cleaner energy sources, will prevent emissions. Other approaches involve capturing greenhouse gases and either sequestering them or finding productive uses for them.

Previous assessments have concluded that roughly 3.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year – more than 10 percent of current global carbon dioxide emissions – could feasibly be utilized within the next several decades if certain technological advancements are achieved. While the eventual scale of carbon utilization will be determined by a variety of technical, economic, and policy drivers over multiple decades, carbon utilization technologies could be instrumental in achieving a “circular carbon economy” in which some carbon waste gases are captured and converted into resources.

One technology – mineralization – transforms carbon dioxide into mineral carbonates, which can be used to make concrete and cement. Because these building construction materials are used at an enormous scale and have product lifetimes that span decades, mineralization represents a significant opportunity for long-term carbon storage as well as utilization, the report says. A variety of processes that use carbon dioxide in the production of concrete and cement are already operating at limited commercial scales.

Other technologies use chemical and biological processes to transform carbon dioxide and methane into fuels, polymers, and chemicals. Some of these processes are already operating commercially to produce high-value chemicals.

The report offers a comprehensive agenda for research to advance these technologies, including R&D to improve particular utilization methods. For example, research is needed on how to integrate mineralization processes with existing technologies for capturing carbon dioxide, in order to improve the efficiency and performance of this process. Other recommended research cuts across technology types; for instance, many technologies could benefit from advances in understanding chemical and biological processes that would facilitate discovery of faster and more energy-efficient reactions of carbon dioxide and methane.

The report also recommends work to advance “enabling” technologies that will be needed for carbon utilization to be viable. For example, carbon and methane waste gases may contain contaminants – such as nitrogen oxides, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide – that can pose barriers to the utilization of the gases. Finding cost-effective methods for separating contaminants from usable waste gases will be important for carbon utilization, the report says. Improvements are also needed in tools used for evaluating the economic and environmental attributes of carbon utilization technologies.

The U.S. government and the private sector should support such research, the report says. Currently R&D on aspects of carbon utilization is scattered throughout various federal research portfolios, including those administered by the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the National Science Foundation. Coordination and communication among these R&D programs could lead to more rapid advancements, the report says.

Federal science agencies should also coordinate carbon utilization R&D efforts with private sector activities in the United States and with international activities in the private and public sectors. Support for R&D should include technologies throughout different stages of maturity, from fundamental research through commercialization, and evaluate them using a consistent framework of economic and environmental criteria.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and Shell. 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. The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.  For more information, visit http://nationalacademies.org.

Sara Frueh, Media Relations Officer
Andrew Robinson, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail news@nas.edu

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Copies of Gaseous Carbon Waste Streams Utilization: Status and Research Needs are available at www.nap.edu or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology

Committee on Developing a Research Agenda for Utilization of Gaseous Carbon Waste Streams

David T. Allen* (chair)
Gertz Regents Professor of Chemical Engineering, and
Center for Energy and Environmental Resources
University of Texas

Mark A. Barteau*
Vice President for Research
Texas A&M University
College Station

Michael Burkart
Vice Chair, and
Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, and
Associate Director
California Center for Algae Biotechnology
University of California
San Diego

Jennifer Dunn
Director of Research
Northwestern-Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering, and
Principal Environmental Analyst
Argonne National Laboratory, and
Research Associate Professor
Northwestern University
Evanston, Ill.

Anne M. Gaffney
Director, and
Laboratory Fellow
Process Science & Technology Division
Idaho National Laboratory
Idaho Falls

Raghubir Gupta
Susteon Inc.
Durham, N.C.

Nilay Hazari
Professor of Chemistry
Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

Matthew Kanan
Associate Professor of Chemistry
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

Paul J.A. Kenis
William H. & Janet G. Lycan Professor, and
Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department
University of Illinois

Howard Klee
Independent Consultant

Gaurav N. Sant
Associate Professor, and
Henry Samueli Fellow, and
Institute for Carbon Management
University of California
Los Angeles

Cathy L. Tway
Materials Science and Engineering Capability of
Core Research & Development
The Dow Chemical Company
Midland, Mich.


David Allen
Staff Officer

*Member, National Academy of Engineering