The earth has gone through several large eras throughout its lifetime. From the stone age to the more recent iron age, each era has been essential to the advancement of humanity and engineering our current society.
What is often forgotten, though, are the overlapping and ongoing eras in our modern society, like the aluminum age, which began in the 1800s and gave us the ability to create spacecrafts with the relatively lightweight material, or the plastic era, which began in the 1900s and made it easier to package and preserve materials for long periods of time.
But the conveniences created by the plastic era are now damaging the planet. Pollution created from improper dumping and plastic’s extremely long decomposition time, as well as the large amount of greenhouse gases continuously pumped into the atmosphere, has created conditions that affect all organic matter on this planet.
The creation of plastics is not the sole contributor to the harm of our planet. Industrialization and modernization have pumped large carbon and other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, creating conditions damaging our world and a climate crisis.
Governments around the world have adopted economic and political solutions to try to curb carbon emissions, but some people, like Madison Savilow, chief of staff at Carbon Upcycling Technologies (CUT), and her colleagues view carbon as also the solution to the climate crisis.
“The idea is that we’ll be able to use CO2 or carbon as the main resource, rather than a liability, going forward. And that’s through carbon capture and utilization,” she said.
Calgary-based CUT has found ways to target carbon emissions and repurpose them to create stronger and greener concrete, paving the way for what they’ve dubbed the Carbon Era, in which more businesses adopt similar climate change mitigation measures.
While concrete has played a large part in developing and structuring our cities, it also produces the second-largest amount of carbon emissions at around eight per cent, according to the think tank Chatham House.
According to a BBC article, China produces the most cement — just over 400 million tonnes in 2017 alone, with CO2 emissions of more than 150 million tonnes.
“Concrete is the second-most-used substance on Earth, other than water. It’s a massive, massive industry,” said Savilow.
Countries with high industrial outputs, such as China or the U.S., have produced concrete at an increased rate over the last few decades to meet with a growing population. But the process of creating concrete hasn’t evolved — today’s way of creating a cement mixture has been around since the creation of Rome’s Colosseum.
“It just provides a really difficult landscape to actually innovate or reduce the carbon emission,” said Savilow.
CUT’s main product is a concrete additive that stabilizes the carbon. It sequesters the gaseous CO2 into inorganic solid powders like fly-ash — a byproduct of industrial coal-burning— pulverized glass, recycled materials or other products.
“It’s kind of like each particle of powder is like a sponge, sucking up the CO2 and holding it in a stable format. And it won’t release until it hits very high temperatures,” said Savilow.
The entire process of creating the additive only takes a single step, making the process low energy and efficient.
This additive is then mixed into the concrete, replacing a portion of it in concrete mixes. In doing so, CUT believes they will be able to reduce the carbon footprint of concrete by up to 25 per cent.
“Mitigating climate change is something that all companies should be working towards, especially those within the energy sector and especially those that are emitting the most,” said Savilow.
Some companies have been. Over the years, industries have started to implement these practices to produce greener products. Here in Calgary, Clean02 has been using carbon-capture technology on furnaces and heaters to produce body soap.
In the United Kingdom, CCm Technologies uses carbon sequestration in agriculture, which produces a staggering 24 per cent of global emissions, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). CCm claims to be able to reduce nearly 90 per cent of the carbon footprint associated with creating fertilizer.
Although carbon sequestration has its benefits, and is essential in reducing emissions currently, Sara Hastings-Simons, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary who directs the master’s program in sustainable development, believes better approaches could be used in achieving net-zero.
“The challenge with carbon capture as an approach is that it is very energy-intensive.”
Hastings-Simons believes carbon capture and sequestration to be more akin to one piece of a larger puzzle.
“The size of the role that it has to play in our economy going forward, I think, is overestimated in many of the conversations that are going on within Alberta.”
Many of the models that aim to predict what energy systems would look like in the future show electricity as the dominant power source.
“The majority of emissions will be reduced through electrification. Some of them will be reduced through carbon capture and storage. But the relative scale of those is different,” Hastings-Simons says.
As companies continue to implement greener initiatives, the goal is not only to create materials with a low carbon footprint but also to provide a better solution to the ongoing climate crisis.
Savilow says that’s been a driving factor in the work at CUT.
“We want to be a climate solution, rather than contributing to the problem,” says Savilow.
CUT has been testing carbon sequestrations uses in other industries. By switching out the raw materials where the CO2 is being stored, they are able to create additives for industries such as plastics, consumer products, pharmaceuticals and solar panels, paving the way to the Carbon Era the company envisions.
“For any carbon utilization company to be successful, it has to show performance value beyond just the CO2 reduction, or else companies won’t uptake the use of that material,” says Savilow.