A schooner of low carbon beer, please
Industries are using captured CO2 to solve complex industrial challenges, whether as a fuel, an additive or to make plants grow stronger. Australia is leading the technology behind these advances.
- From beer to concrete, new carbon capture technologies are making everyday essentials cleaner
- Australian scientists are pioneering new CCUS technologies that could also help decarbonise heavy industries
- Inventions are becoming cheaper, attracting interest and investment from around the world
When you drink a schooner in a bar or crack open a tinnie at home, you’re consuming CO2.
The carbon dioxide in your beverage is typically generated by industry, mainly as a by-product of other processes. It then travels many miles in cylinders along complex supply chains – routes to market which can be disrupted, as happened in the US in 2020. Now imagine, instead, that this CO2 could simply be captured from the air into your drink, maybe even directly behind the bar where you’re drinking. Thanks to a scientific breakthrough in Australia this could soon be a reality.
“If we can get our technology to the right price point, there could be thousands of companies interested in “Airthena” - our air capture solution,” says Dr Aaron Thornton, a senior research scientist at Australia’s national science agency CSIRO. His team has developed a small machine that can soak up atmospheric CO2, with minimal power consumption.
Thornton’s team is just one of several organisations pioneering low-cost systems that could allow many more businesses to capture their own CO2. More diverse, localised carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) systems could not only make beer bubbles carbon neutral or carbon negative: building materials and many other products could become more resilient too, capturing and recycling the waste products of industries like power generation in the process.
Carbon-intensive sectors like concrete and steel could also benefit – potentially creating green products that could make homes lower carbon, cheaper to build and industries and economies more competitive. There are also applications for greener plastics, medical sterilisation, hand sanitiser and increasing fruit and vegetable yields.
CCUS could even help us live on Mars. These technologies look set to stimulate new economies, bring us closer to meeting net-zero climate goals - and many are being born in Australia.
Beer with a difference
Airthena looks unassuming – like a bank of high-end sports lockers for oversize gym equipment – but it could play a role in helping curb the rise in global emissions. CSIRO’s invention uses tiny sponges called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) to attract CO2. The process is a bit like the cardboard “Magic Trees” you might remember from your childhood that mysteriously grew colourful crystals.
“Airthena doesn’t change CO2”, Dr Thornton explains. “It simply captures it from the air. This means the CO2 can be released fairly easily – you just need 80 degrees Celsius heat and a vacuum to collect it.”
“Because our units are quite small, they could get rid of CO2 deliveries and replace them with on-site production instead - particularly useful for micro-breweries who can be vulnerable to a CO2 shortage.”
The CSIRO team has big ambitions, adds Thornton: “We’re now working on mega capture units targeting a million tonnes a year.”
In another Australian lab, a CCUS process is being developed which could change the materials which build our world – and help transform and strengthen Australian heavy industries in the process. Mineral Carbonation International (MCi)’s accelerated weathering process is attracting considerable interest from the construction industry.
“Our system is an engineered version of atmospheric weathering,” says Marcus Dawe, CEO and managing director at MCi. This is the process you might remember from your school geography lessons whereby rock is eroded over millions of years, locking up the CO2 activated by rain.
“We take this natural process and speed it up,” explains Dawe. We call it “accelerated weathering” and we are building it to industrial scale in purpose-built units. We can also tune our reactors so they can combine any CO2 sources from Australian industries like power, steel, or cement, and combine with feedstocks to turn them into different solid materials with a wide range of uses – like sustainable buildings and infrastructure.”
The applications of this type of technology are significant.
From the pavement slabs under your feet to the heavy grey blocks holding up your house, cement is the most widely used construction material on the planet. Its production is also estimated to generate around 7% of total energy system CO2 emissions - a figure that “must fall precipitously” if the world is to meet climate goals, according to the International Energy Agency. Yet we depend on cement to help economies function.
It’s a challenge MCi believes it can solve. Its low-carbon materials can be substituted in existing cement production with no need for companies to change equipment; and because its products enable companies to cut their carbon intensity, it can help them become sustainable too.
And it’s not just heavy industry that could benefit from these technologies.
Think of tomatoes and CO2 probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind – but for plants, carbon dioxide is, of course, lifegiving, and many of Australia’s vegetable growers depend on it.
“Many glasshouse owners burn liquified natural gas (LNG) to produce CO2 and boost yields,” says Dr Thornton from CSIRO. “And that LNG has to be driven long distances in remote areas. Our solar-powered systems could end those journeys, and pull CO2 from the air too.”
And there is a myriad of other uses.
‘Supercritical’ CO2 – which is in a state between gas and liquid – has also been successfully commercialised as a steriliser. One company is making hand sanitiser with ethanol produced from CO2. Another is using carbon dioxide to make a thermopolymer plastic which can be melted down and reshaped into materials you could be eating your dinner off in future.
CCUS could even help us colonise other planets. NASA is developing a technology which uses CO2 to produce simple sugar molecules known as D-sugars, which could be crucial to sustaining future extra-terrestrial colonies.
But are these innovations always destined to be premium products for those who can afford them? This will no doubt be the case for some. However, carbon innovators are increasingly subverting these preconceptions, building affordability into the DNA of their business models.
“We see CO2 as a resource to create value from – not a waste product,” says Marcus Dawe from MCi, which has been assisted by government grants but says the economics are now favourable: “We’re now creating more value from the end products than it costs to capture the CO2.”
Dr Thorton is also seeing costs fall. “We’ve got the operating costs of Airthena down to just USD 35 per tonne and are working on capital costs for a targeted total of USD 100 per tonne,” he says. “We hope to save the beverage industry money.”
If low-emissions technology businesses can be built that are both economically as well as environmentally viable, the rewards could be considerable. Some estimates put the market for “carbon tech” products (made from waste carbon) - at up to USD 5.91 trillion annually. There is also an increasing appetite among financial markets to bet on low carbon industries, as ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) investments gain more ground.
The International Energy Agency says CCUS “will need to form a key pillar of efforts to put the world on the path to net-zero emissions” with new applications and business models at its heart.
There is evidence to show that this is now starting to happen.
“We’re seeing big interest from the cement industry and are being inundated with interest from global companies, including in Europe and America,” says Marcus Dawe. MCi is currently working to identify sites capable of processing initially up to 50,000 tonnes of CO2 annually, with the potential to scale to a million tonnes per plant, per year. Aaron Thornton is similarly upbeat.
This sentiment is also reflected in the growing momentum of CCUS projects in Australia and soon to be bolstered by new government funding for a wide range of low emission, new energy technologies. From the potential multi-billion-dollar hydrogen economy to the storage capability of Australia’s geology and industrial base, the contours are emerging of a successful, sustainable future.
From concrete to cold beer, technologies which can support these new and existing heavy industries - finding new uses for waste products or ways to localise production - make this brighter tomorrow even more possible.
”I’m a futurist, I know it’s coming”, says Marcus Dawe. “I’m a steward for this technology, at the helm of a ship sailing for the new decarbonised world.”
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