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Senators discuss carbon utilization for climate goals

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Carbon utilization technologies could be key to U.S. efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, according to congressional and business leaders who discussed the issue Thursday.

Thursday was also Earth Day, with U.S. President Joe Biden making a pledge during an online climate summit of world leaders that the U.S. would cut greenhouse gas emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, about a one-third increase compared to prior U.S. commitments about emissions reductions.

The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee also met that day to talk about what kind of help scientists and innovators will need to make carbon utilization technologies marketable and practical in the coming years.

Carbon utilization technologies go beyond carbon capture and sequestration, which can occur naturally through plants or occur as a result of human-made devices. With carbon utilization, the captured carbon dioxide, the most prominent greenhouse gas in the United States, is used to create products.

The Energy Act of 2020 has provided $6 billion for carbon capture, sequestration and utilization research, with $280 million specifically for the research and development of carbon utilization technologies, according to U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the chair of the Senate committee.

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“By 2030, the CO2 utilization market size for products such as concrete, fuels and chemicals has the potential to reach $800 billion,” Manchin said. “This would represent about 7 gigatons of CO2, equivalent to about 15% of global emissions.”

Carbon XPrize, a five-year international scientific competition, had finalists that used carbon dioxide to create vodka, cleaning agents, fuels, hand sanitizer, plastics, and batteries, Manchin said.

Among the industry experts to talk at the Senate committee meeting was Gaurav Sant, a member of one of the two winning teams, CarbonBuilt, an initiative of the Samueli School of Engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles.

CarbonBuilt and the other winner received $7.5 million each from the competition. CarbonBuilt developed a method to capture carbon dioxide produced by a coal-fired power plants and infuse the gas into a new type of concrete. Once hardened, the gas becomes like a mineral inside the concrete so that it is permanently trapped in it. The new concrete also has 50% less carbon that traditional concrete.

Others scientists and industry leaders speaking with senators were Dr. Brian Anderson, the director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory, a Department of Energy unit; Jason Begger, managing director of the Wyoming Integrated Test Center; and Randall Atkins, chief executive officer of Ramaco Coal.

The experts said that large amounts of federal funding for public-private partnerships — perhaps on the level of the Manhattan Project that worked on the atomic bomb — will be needed to create large-scale carbon utilization projects by 2030, which they said will be needed to convince investors and businesses of the viability of new innovations, as well as train industry and the workforce for the new types of work.

They also said that tax credits — similar to those provided to the solar industry and other renewable energy projects — are called for, as well as “buy clean” incentives so that companies or government entities would not always have to accept the lowest bids.

“I do believe that the power of federal government, through procurement, to really be a huge entry into transitioning these technologies to a much lower cost, to a much wider application,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich of Albuquerque.

While some technologies will involve large plants and manufacturing sites, others can be smaller, such as membranes and liquids already developed that can sequester carbon dioxide.

“We need a suite of technologies,” said Begger.

Atkins is pushing for a new view of coal, which he called a 21st century advanced material. He noted that it is not a harmful substance unless burned, when it then produces carbon dioxide. He said coal can be used for high-tech nano products such as memory chips, carbon foams used in aerospace, for graphites, for fibers and for minerals needed for cellphones and other technology.

Right now, petroleum is a major component, or “feedstock,” for many products. But he said carbon is much cheaper, and he noted that China already has about 370 plants producing coal-derived products.

He and others added that creating valuable products from coal will help revitalize coal communities hurt by policies and actions intended to transition the United States to renewable energy sources.

Sant also said that, in addition to funding, a national database needs to be established so that people can determine the carbon density of products and to verify that the products meet necessary standards. Others said that new permitting and approval processes would have to be created if the intention is to bring large-scale plants into production in the next 10 years.

Carbon dioxide makes up about 80% of the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels has produced most of the greenhouse gases during the past 150 years, according to various government agencies, and many scientists believe that enough greenhouse pollutants have been produced since the industrial revolution to have caused global warming and its effects such as extreme weather conditions, decreasing biological diversity in some areas of the world, and rising and more acidic oceans.

Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.