Reimagine waste: Capturing and reusing carbon to build a better world

Photo taken by Will Hascall.

Since long before I was born, America has confused progress with building something new with an emphasis on building and new. If something is not bigger, more expensive, shinier, full of greater functionality and more expensive, it is just not new enough, not good enough. This is a flawed perspective.

After a few years, or decades, of initial innovation, things flatten out and innovations become smaller, less grand and people more quickly lose interest in them. We have seen it with cars, computers, and cellular phones. A technology can sit stagnant for decades before something revolutionary comes along to shake up the world.

For cars it’s self-driving capabilities and being adapted for alternate fuels. In the world of computing, the innovations are less visible to the daily computer user but behind the scenes, cloud computing, machine learning and quantum computing technologies are reshaping the way that we use and interact with computers. Wait, what about cellular phones? Well, what’s new and exciting about them? Not much, except for the growing retrograde trend towards repairability.

More people are realizing that we live in a world of limited resources and that it is time we start looking to what we can build new with what we already have. This even gets to our most limited of resources, air and water. Wait, air and water are limited resources? They are.

Some contaminants, like heavy metals, become problematic at even low concentrations in our water, and there are many large cities all over the world where the air itself is bad for even healthy people to breathe. The reverse is not as true; when you put a little clean air or water into a polluted area, the whole reservoir does not suddenly become clean.

The only resource which seems unlimited is waste. This means that we need to hit the problem of pollution in a big way to make a significant difference. Going big often needs more space, and space is yet another limited resource. We have the space right now in these large factories which get abandoned as old industrial processes become obsolete.

While reading about a recent MIT project on Direct Air Capture (DAC) of CO2 from the atmosphere, I saw that the MIT group used a chemical called polyanthraquinone. This compound is also being studied for use in batteries as well. Polyanthraquinone is a close relative of anthraquinone which is an additive used in paper digesters. Wait, paper? Yes. It made me think of all of these vacant buildings, including paper mills. What if we could reuse these facilities, especially if they are connected to existing clean energy sources, like an existing hydro-power plant, to start actually removing pollution from our air and water?

Maybe is is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Two projects are yielding promising results. These are the MIT DAC project I mentioned above and removing pollutants from water using a related technique. Some people are already putting DAC to good use. Several teams are working on scaling up the DAC and water cleaning techniques while others are working on ways to use the resulting CO2 and other byproducts. The CO2 reclamation has many useful products from enhanced oil recovery, piping the CO2 into oil reservoirs to get more oil from the ground, to geological sequestration which turns the CO2 into rock. However, the CO2 can be used above ground as well by turning it into jet fuel, carbonating beverages and using it to create concrete. If you extract the carbon into a solid again you can even make ink!

We need to embrace the reality that all resources are limited and that we should reuse as much as we can. Americans at one time in the past were looked upon by most of the rest of the world as innovators and over the past several years that distinction has slipped quietly to China, at least according to the writers of The Economist, a British newspaper. We have slipped because we have stopped looking at the possible and far too many of us are looking at the way things were many years ago when life was more understandable. Like it or not, this is the world we live in now and we Americans need to pick ourselves up and stare down the undiscovered country of our future.