How Does Carbon Capture Work to Combat Climate Change?

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Planet Earth has many different regions with unique geographical features and weather patterns. Some areas are usually very warm, while others are cold throughout most of the year. Humans, and the animals and various ecosystems we live among, have evolved to thrive in these environments, their temperatures, their rainfall, and their weather patterns — collectively known as the climate. If these qualities change, people, animals, plants, and other living things won’t be able to live comfortably anymore.

On Earth, our planet usually undergoes slow changes in the climate over very long periods. However, human activities, like transporting goods, flying airplanes, and farming the food we eat lead to the production of greenhouse gases. These gases are causing Earth’s climate to change at a much faster rate, which puts the planet in danger.

As greenhouse gases continue to harm our planet by causing climate change, more and more people are demanding change from companies whose activities create those gases. The energy industry, which produces fuel and electricity, is a major producer of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. But there may be a solution that could help slow the process. Carbon capture is one method of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that gets into the environment.

What Is Carbon Capture?

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Companies produce electricity, gasoline, and other industrial products using chemical reactions. Most of these chemical reactions create byproducts — other elements, chemicals, or gases that form during the reaction but aren’t part of the final product. When carbon dioxide is a byproduct of a process, the carbon dioxide gas leaks out into the environment. Once it rises into the layers of our atmosphere, carbon dioxide traps heat that rises off of the planet. When there is too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, too much heat gets trapped close to Earth. That leads to global warming.

To reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the environment, some factories use a process called carbon capture. Carbon capture traps the carbon dioxide at its source before it has a chance to harm the environment.

There are different methods of carbon capture, and many of them involve the extra steps of storage and utilization. Once the carbon is captured, companies need to do something with it. That means they either need to store it, perhaps underground or in a large pipeline, or use it for other purposes. There are industrial uses for both liquid and gas carbon dioxide.

How Does Carbon Capture Work?

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There are three types of carbon capture: oxyfuel carbon capture, pre-combustion carbon capture, and post-combustion carbon capture.

Carbon dioxide is released during the burning of fossil fuels. In the process of oxyfuel carbon capture, the fossil fuels are surrounded by pumped-in oxygen while they’re burning. The oxygen level in the surrounding environment must be as close to 100% as possible. The high oxygen levels cause carbon dioxide to separate from other, less environmentally harmful gases. Then, another chemical process can turn carbon dioxide into liquid, which is much easier to store than gas.

Pre-combustion carbon capture happens before the fossil fuels are burnt. Rather than burning liquid or solid fuels, the fuels are converted into gas, and the carbon dioxide is filtered out of that gas. Then, when the fossil fuels are burned to produce energy or perform other industrial processes, there is no carbon dioxide left over to leach out into the environment.

Post-combustion carbon capture happens after the fossil fuels are burnt. All of the gas created from burning the fuels is captured. Then, the carbon dioxide is filtered out of the fumes and placed into a storage tank. Some factories do this type of carbon capture by attaching filtration machines onto their chimneys or smokestacks.

Can Carbon Capture Reduce Carbon Footprints?

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Around the world, governments and industries are striving for net-zero emissions. This means that the number of greenhouse gases removed from the atmosphere match (or exceed) the amount released into it. The production of greenhouse gases is unavoidable in certain circumstances. For example, cows produce greenhouse gases because their belches contain methane. That’s why people are striving for net-zero rather than zero emissions.

If an activity that removes the same amount of greenhouse gases is done at the same time as an activity that produces greenhouse gases, there’s little to no impact on the environment.  For example, say two friends give each other $10 bills. Neither friend lost or gained any money. So, each friend has a net-zero effect on the amount of money in their wallet. By gaining $10 at the same time as losing $10, there’s zero difference in the total amount of money in each person’s pocket. That’s the same kind of impact net-zero efforts can have on the environment. By removing greenhouse gases as soon as they’re created, humans can continue engaging in necessary activities while harming the planet less.

The energy industry is one of the largest industrial contributors to the worldwide climate change issue. If the energy industry alone adopted carbon capture, billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide per year would no longer enter the environment. This could give the planet a chance to “cool off” by slowing the pace of climate change to levels recorded before the Industrial Revolution.

Are There Concerns About Carbon Capture?

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There’s no question that carbon capture can reduce the greenhouse gases in the environment. But, there are concerns that the process can harm the environment in other ways. Separating carbon dioxide from other gases often involves large amounts of water. Water is a limited natural resource we need to conserve.

Once carbon dioxide is captured, there’s a process for storing it. Some companies have storage tanks for carbon dioxide. Others divert the carbon dioxide to underground pipelines. There are even commercial efforts to store and transport carbon by trucks, trains, and other means.

Storing carbon dioxide is just as important as capturing it. Without proper storage, it can still leak out into the environment, which defeats the purpose. While carbon dioxide itself is not explosive, there are concerns that large reservoirs of carbon gas or liquid could cause explosions. Exposure to high levels of carbon dioxide can also cause acute and chronic health problems.

In the United States, there are only 10 large factories using carbon capture despite there being thousands of facilities that could help the environment by adopting the process. Many companies choose not to use carbon capture because the technology for it is expensive.

Carbon capture is one of many solutions that could help clean up our planet for the future. Some people wonder if carbon capture creates a bigger problem or if it is too expensive for widespread use. Nevertheless, carbon capture is one step in the direction of creating innovative technologies to limit the damage that humans cause to the environment.

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