What is carbon capture and utilization (CCU)?

Carbon Capture

Carbon Capture and Utilization, or CCU, is the process of collecting CO₂ from energy utilities, industrial sites, and other facilities that burn fossil fuels or biomass and then converting it into a useful resource.

Captured carbon can be reused on-site where it’s collected or shipped elsewhere so it can be converted into a range of useful ingredients. 

In this article, we will further explore CCU, its role in the emerging circular economy, its benefits, and its potential to reshape the way products are manufactured across a range of industries.

The definition of CCU

Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU) is the process of gathering carbon from emissions sources or the atmosphere and then using it to make fuels, materials, and chemistries that form the basis of nearly all everyday products. 

CCU versus CCS

CCU is sometimes confused with carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCU gives waste CO₂ a new life by converting it into useful products. On the other hand, CCS sequesters CO₂ by, for example, burying it underground.

Capturing the carbon

There are several different sources of carbon and ways to capture it. Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology pulls air from the atmosphere through a system that catches gases and isolates the CO₂. Carbon can also be captured from emissions at manufacturing sites and power plants with membrane technologies, solvent absorption, adsorption, etc. This prevents carbon from entering the atmosphere and instead puts it to good use. 

Utilization of captured carbon

Once the carbon is captured, it can be used in materials, fuels, and chemicals that ultimately make up all of the products that we use every day. For example, captured carbon can be used to make materials such as concrete and cement. It can also be used as liquid or gaseous fuels as well as for energy storage (i,e., solar cells). In the chemical sector, captured carbon can be used in the manufacture of intermediates for a nearly endless range of products including plastics, cleaning products, textiles, paints and coatings, foams for furniture and mattresses, personal care products (e.g., shampoo), and other products that require carbon-based chemistries. 

CCU and the Circular Economy

CCU can play a crucial role in mitigating climate change. When CO₂ is captured and repurposed, it keeps it out of the atmosphere and gives that carbon a new life as part of the circular economy. Depending on the methods and context, manufacturers can use CCU to: 

  • Achieve a net reduction in CO₂ by removing carbon from the air or through the treatment of biomass.
  • Produce products with fewer CO₂ emissions by replacing fossil-based feedstocks with captured carbon (i.e., renewable carbon).
  • Achieve a net CO₂ reduction by embedding carbon into products (and later preventing that CO₂ from being re-emitted through recapture or recycling at end-of-life).

Together, these benefits help manufacturers and brand owners reduce the environmental footprint of their businesses. 

As society takes steps to reduce the overall emission of greenhouse gases by shifting away from burning fossil fuels, CCU can play a helpful role. It’s one of many new technologies that support global ambitions to reduce human impact on the planet, and especially on the climate. 

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