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What Is CO2, Why Is It an Issue, and How Can DDAC Help?

Published on 
April 12, 2023

After over a decade of methodical research here at Skytree, we’ve developed concepts and products that offer CO2-focused Decentralized Direct Air Capture systems.

Using our solutions, we hope to help tackle some of the most pressing issues facing us today. Issues as important as climate change and international food security.

But first — before we start exploring CO2-related issues and solutions — we think it’s important to take a step back and refresh our memories for a second. What is CO2 exactly? And how can we diminish its harmful effects while creating added value at the same time?

What is CO2 Exactly – Back to School

It seems like we hear about “carbon,” “carbon dioxide,” and “CO2” all the time these days, especially when environmental issues are being discussed. But what exactly is it we’re talking about?

Well, in precise scientific terms, carbon dioxide is a one-carbon compound, in which one carbon atom is linked with two oxygen atoms by two double bonds. CO2 is the name given to its chemical formula.

And although you will often hear people referring to CO2 as carbon when talking about the climate, scientifically, carbon is not the same thing. Whereas CO2 is a colorless, odorless gas under normal conditions, carbon is a black or clear, solid element. Carbon, or the element C, is actually the very building block of life. As carbon has the ability to form stable bonds with itself and many other elements, it allows for a huge variety of large, complex molecules to be created. (When people talk about reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, many times they’re really talking about carbon dioxide/CO2, and in association, about all the other greenhouse gasses).

CO2 is released into the atmosphere by almost all living things when they respire or decay, and also through wildfires, volcanic eruptions, the weathering of carbonate rocks, and from burning fossil fuels like oil and coal. And although CO2 makes up only about 0.04% of the earth’s atmosphere, it is a primary heat-trapping gas, contributing to warming up the earth’s atmosphere.

Why is CO2 So Important?

The reality is that CO2 can be both – a curse and a blessing. On the positive side, life on earth without CO2 could simply not exist.

As we already mentioned, it is a primary greenhouse gas. This means that CO2 helps to trap heat within our atmosphere. Without this trapped heat, our planet would be too cold to sustain life.

And as well as keeping us warm, CO2 is needed to support our current food ecosystem. All the food on this planet either comes directly or indirectly from something called photosynthesis. This is the process plants use to transform water, sunlight, and CO2 into oxygen, and sugars that the plants use as fuel. All the food chains on earth are dependent on photosynthesis, and CO2 plays a crucial role for the process to work.

Moving away from the natural world, CO2 is also needed by many industries as feedstock. It’s estimated that over 230 million tonnes of CO2 are used every year in industrial processes globally. Food and beverage production, metal fabrication, and stimulating greenhouse plant growth are just a few of the commercial processes that rely on CO2.

But how do the companies involved manage to get their hands on all this CO2?

Where does the CO2 used come from today?

Most companies today buy CO2 that is produced as a byproduct of fossil fuel-powered industrial processes. So for example when a factory powered by fossil fuels emits unwanted CO2during its production process, some of this CO2will be captured, cleaned, liquified and collected in tanks. The CO2 is then transported and pumped directly to on-site tanks of companies who require carbon dioxide for their operation. Breweries, for example, that need CO2 to make beer palatable, or greenhouses that need it to stimulate plant growth, would usually purchase CO2 captured in this way. In some areas, like the Netherlands, greenhouses also have the opportunity to connect to the CO2 producers directly via pipelines.  

As we will see in the next section, this method of CO2 procurement contributes to a number of CO2-related issues that we face today.

What CO2-Related Themes are you Most Likely to Hear in Conversations Today?

Global Warming

As we discussed previously, CO2 is a planet-heating greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gasses are part of the greenhouse effect, which is a natural process that’s crucial for keeping our planet warm and habitable. These gasses act as a sort of blanket that helps to hold in some of the heat that arrives from the sun. Without them, much of the heat from the sun would be reflected back into space, and our planet would be nothing but a big ball of ice.

But the problem is; when there’s too much CO2 in the atmosphere, the planet can heat up too much. That is what is happening today, and our burning of fossil fuels is a huge contributor to the problem.

According to NASA, since the beginning of industrial times, human activities have raised CO2 levels in the atmosphere by 50%, which has already significantly raised global temperature.

Recent reports have shown that climate change caused by a heating planet has already increased the strength and likelihood of extreme weather events, and scientists have warned that further temperature increases could be catastrophic.

Preventing emitting more CO2 by burning fossil fuels, and reducing the amount of CO2 currently in the atmosphere will be absolutely critical if we are to stop these further temperature increases from happening.

This means companies that need CO2 will have to find a different way to procure it. As for many companies, stopping the use of CO2 altogether, or finding alternatives, just isn’t a viable option. Many food producers, bakers, farmers, brewers and other industries currently depend on CO2 to operate.

But the current way they procure it prolongs the burning of fossil fuels, by encouraging the processes of the industries that burn the fossil fuels in the first place to continue. These industries will always emit CO2 while powered by fossil fuels, because the process of capturing the CO2 can never be 100% efficient. On top of these emissions, procuring CO2 captured from these industrial processes also emits further CO2 into the atmosphere when tanks of CO2 are transported from the capture site to the company purchasing them.

Even if these environmental impacts weren’t an issue, companies might still soon be forced to find a new CO2 source regardless. As for various reasons discussed in the next section, CO2 has been in short supply lately. Which could have knock-on effects for food security.

Food Security Risk

You would think that since there’s too much CO2 present in the atmosphere, there should be plenty of it available for companies to use. For multiple reasons, the opposite is actually true.

Particularly in the US and Europe, industry is currently facing extreme shortages of CO2. As companies that need it usually purchase CO2 captured from fossil fuel-powered activities, recent increases in energy prices and strains on fossil fuel supply chains have made CO2 more expensive and difficult to obtain.

The war in Ukraine and Russia’s closing of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is one factor contributing to this issue. But the slowing of gas production during the pandemic, contamination of a large natural CO2 well in Mississippi, reductions in ammonia production in Europe due to volatile natural gas prices, and various other factors have also contributed.

And without CO2, many food and beverage companies will not be able to function, as meat producers, bakers, greenhouses, brewers, and soft drink producers all use CO2 to produce their products and keep them fresh. CO2 is also used to keep potato chips fresh within unopened packets.

With demand for CO2 from the food and beverage industry actually growing alongside these CO2 shortages, it’s clear that companies will have to find an alternative way to source it. One that doesn’t depend on the burning of fossil fuels.

If they don’t, the risk of significant food shortages will be high, and customer’s wallets will be hit hard as prices across multiple industries rise significantly.

Delaying the Transition Towards Renewable Energy

By utilizing technology to capture some of the emissions they generate, factories that rely on fossil fuels for their operations are reducing their impact on the environment to some extent. However, this practice may delay the shift towards renewable energy, which is a more eco-friendly alternative.

It’s worth noting that purchasing CO2 that’s captured during the combustion of fossil fuels, as is so common today, inadvertently has the effect of perpetuating the use of fossil fuels and stalling progress towards renewable energy.

DDAC as a Solution

To help provide companies with an alternative source of CO2 that isn’t dependent on the fossil fuel industry, Skytree has developed innovative CO2-capturing technology.

As carbon capture technologies emerge, the initial versions being brought to market are large centralized units that suck in vast amounts of CO2. These installations are very costly to run, can only be housed in certain locations, and require significant deployment time.

But the technology we have developed at Skytree is fully modular, and can capture CO2 straight from the ambient air using filters with CO2-capturing sorbent. Once captured, the CO2 can then be released as needed through a trigger mechanism. This allows companies from a wide range of industries to create an on-site, on-demand supply of CO2.

We refer to this technology as DDAC, or Decentralized Direct Air Capture technology. Because it is compact enough to be installed on-site, and it is modular, so that it can be scaled up to capture as much CO2 as a facility requires. DDAC allows businesses to move away from buying costly fossil fuel-based CO2, and helps them achieve carbon neutrality.

At Skytree with the help of our DDAC technology, we hope to make CO2 much more of a blessing rather than curse in the very near future.

Sources

  1. “Carbon Dioxide.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Database, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2018, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Carbon-dioxide#section=Uses.
  2. Education, UCAR Center for Science. “Center for Science Education.” Carbon Dioxide | Center for Science Education, https://scied.ucar.edu/learning-zone/how-climate-works/carbon-dioxide.
  3. “Explaining Extreme Events from a Climate Perspective.” American Meteorological Society, https://www.ametsoc.org/ams/index.cfm/publications/bulletin-of-the-american-meteorological-society-bams/explaining-extreme-events-from-a-climate-perspective/.
  4. “Explaining Extreme Events from a Climate Perspective.” American Meteorological Society, https://www.ametsoc.org/ams/index.cfm/publications/bulletin-of-the-american-meteorological-society-bams/explaining-extreme-events-from-a-climate-perspective/.
  5. “Just a Small Rise in Earth’s Temperature Could Cause Irreversible Ecosystem and Weather Changes.” Science, 8 Sept. 2022, https://www.science.org/content/article/just-small-rise-earth-s-temperature-could-cause-irreversible-ecosystem-and-weather.
  6. NASA. “Carbon Dioxide Concentration.” NASA, NASA, 16 Mar. 2023, https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/carbon-dioxide/.
  7. “Photosynthesis.” Education, https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/photosynthesis/.
  8. Sousa, Agnieszka de, et al. “Yara to Further Cut European Ammonia Production Due to Gas Spike.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 25 Aug. 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-08-25/yara-to-further-cut-european-ammonia-production-due-to-gas-spike.
  9. Townsend, Amie. How the Shortage of Carbon Dioxide (co²) Could Impact the Food and Beverage Industry, 16 Dec. 2022, https://www.hiscoxlondonmarket.com/blog/how-shortage-carbon-dioxide-co2-could-impact-food-and-beverage-industry.
  10. “UK Food and Drink Sector Sounds Alarm over Co₂ Shortages as Plant Halts Production.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Aug. 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/aug/25/co2-producers-meet-food-needs-halt-production-energy-prices.

Lucie Jechova
Administrator
Lucie Jechova
Administrator
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