Redifining Carbon in a Circular Economy – Prof Peter Styring — 2nd Dec 2019

John Laurie said, and it was said again by Peter Jackson at our meet­ing, “We’re doomed, we’re all doomed!” Here in Sheffield it’s really scary with a pre­dic­tion that Millhouses Park, as well as East Anglia, Lincolnshire, north­ern Germany, the Low Countries and many other low lying lands around the world will be part of the sea bed by 2100. Stumperlowe should escape, how­ever.

So some­thing drastic needs to be done. There’s a lot of elec­tion noise here at the moment, and indeed at a much higher level at the immin­ent G20 about tack­ling carbon emis­sions. Do our politi­cians have a handle on the scale of the prob­lem and what to do about it?

Peter Styring, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry at the University of Sheffield, is such an inter­na­tional author­ity on the sub­ject that politi­cians and industry are taking him and others in the field very ser­i­ously. Peter is Director of the UK Centre for Carbon Dioxide Utilisation and has his own com­pany (CO2Chem Media & Publishing) and has estab­lished the Styring Group. He is look­ing to set up a Brussels office. He has pub­lished the influ­en­tial “Carbon Capture and Utilisation in the Green Economy” and “Carbon Dioxide Utilisation: clos­ing the carbon cycle”. He delivered a stun­ning lec­ture to us, but at a cost of a met­eoric rise in carbon diox­ide (CO2) in the room and con­firmed by the num­bers on his pocket gas­o­meter at the end. Despite wor­ry­ing levels of such a narcolepsy-inducing gas-filled air, every­one stayed awake.

Global warm­ing is asso­ci­ated with increas­ing carbon diox­ide levels. Coral reefs are dis­ap­pear­ing. Fisheries at low lat­it­ude around the world are being lost. Arctic regions are melt­ing. There’s more water and heat in the atmo­sphere caus­ing weather extremes. Rising water levels lead to coastal flood­ing. Here in Sheffield, there’s already sig­ni­fic­ant heat related mor­bid­ity and mor­tal­ity res­ult­ing in 500 to 700 deaths, largely from par­tic­u­late matter in the air.

We’re now at the tip­ping point, so every­one needs to be acutely envir­on­ment­ally and eco­nom­ic­ally aware. To avoid cata­strophe, at cur­rent emis­sion rates, and to limit a global warm­ing rise of 1.5 degrees C by 2055, global carbon diox­ide emis­sions must by then have reached net zero, start­ing now. Radiative factors such as meth­ane, nitrous oxide (not a laugh­ing gas matter) and aer­o­sols need to reduce by 2030.

Perversely, wind tur­bines are not low carbon at all, emit­ting five per cent of the SF6 (sul­phurhex­a­flu­or­ide) which leaks from its casing and is dan­ger­ous! SF6 from tur­bines emit 24000x carbon equi­val­ent of CO2. It’s used as an insu­lator which pre­vents arcing.

Internationally (and many coun­tries are drag­ging their feet), industry must be will­ing to engage. Carbon cap­ture util­isa­tion (CCU) and stor­age (CCS) is the only solu­tion. A global carbon price is essen­tial there­fore it must be taxed. CCU must be prop­erly sub­sid­ised on a level play­ing field. Vast sub­sidies to pro­tect jobs are already made to the oil and gas indus­tries. The same is true for CCS pro­jects, yet CCU does not yet attract sub­sidies. There will need to be a gradual (rather than sudden) trans­ition as a “calmer” to the pet­ro­chem­ical industry.

It was encour­aging to hear from Peter that Unilever is now taking CCU all very ser­i­ously, with home care products ini­tially but now with a ripple effect on their whole industry.

So what exactly is CCU? This is carbon cap­ture without the need for geo­lo­gical stor­age. Carbon diox­ide from power sta­tions, factor­ies and the atmo­sphere can be used for the pro­duc­tion of fossil oil sub­sti­tutes, feed­stock for farm anim­als, plastics, sur­fact­ants, con­crete, bio­fuel, and avi­ation fuel. The whole pro­cess is carbon neut­ral and depends on algal pho­to­syn­thesis (energy from light). Drax use it with their waste water. Another method is con­ver­sion into hydro­car­bons which can be stored as energy or con­ver­ted into fuel or plastics. Chemical inter­me­di­ates from CCU can be pro­cessed into phar­ma­ceut­ic­als, health care and con­sumer products.

The gov­ern­ment claims it is com­mit­ted to deploy­ing CCU, cap­tur­ing carbon and stor­age on a long-term basis, but any delay after 2030 will not achieve its aim of com­ply­ing to a limit of a 1.5 degrees C rise by 2050.

© co2chem

Government plan­ning is short on detail about removal of green­house gases and action on CCU and CCS. Neither adequate private invest­ment nor research fund­ing is in place. Clarity is needed. Brexit takes pri­or­ity at the moment, at the expense of social justice and account­ab­il­ity. For instance, Manchester has prom­ised CO2 emis­sion reduc­tion of 49% by 2025 by means of a Clean Air Zone, more elec­tric vehicles (EV) and CCS. The prob­lem is that EVs are not zero emis­sion and their plans for CCS facil­it­ies are unclear. Biomass is not the pan­acea. It is not carbon neut­ral. The UK energy mix cur­rently falls far short of the ideal (com­bined cycle gas tur­bines 56.2%, open cycle gas tur­bines 0%, oil 0%, coal 5.9%, nuc­lear 16.7%, wind 9.7%, pumped stor­age hydro 0%). If we’re not at net zero by 2029 it will be the tip­ping point, so the politi­cians need real policies to back up their polit­ical state­ments. This is a long term game, so ser­i­ous cross party think­ing and decisions are urgently needed. “The world will not evolve past its cur­rent crisis by the same think­ing that cre­ated it” (Einstein — para­phrased)

The Lansing tri­angle sums up where we need to be — in the green bit at the top, avoid­ing fossil fuels unless care­fully man­aged. Worst of all is CCS and land­fill. Sheffield’s pro­posed Clean Air Charge is flawed. It cleans up the city centre but defers the prob­lem to the sub­urbs. The worst emis­sions are cur­rently already owned by the Station, Abbeydale Road, Ecclesall Road and Broomhill. These will get worse. Other examples of our City Council’s wisdom are the diesel gen­er­ator for the Ferris wheel at ground level, pois­on­ing all the kids around. Old pol­lut­ing diesel taxis and buses are a major prob­lem. The solu­tion is an urgent need to “reduce and reuse”. We were advised to hang onto our old dies­els as tech­no­logy is on the way to make them carbon friendly. In the mean­time, get a bike.


For the future, e-fuels from CCU are per­haps the most import­ant. CCU isn’t new. The first CCU plant was built by Joseph Priestley at the Leeds brew­ery in 1772. He inven­ted fizzy drinks (as well as other things).

Carbon found in any­thing can be extrac­ted as CO2 to util­ise it and make it carbon neut­ral, for instance in extrac­tion of iron from its ore. There are count­less syn­thetic sub­stances which con­tain carbon. Any of these can be sourced from CCU.

Sustainable agro­chem­ic­als can feed the world. Blue urea pro­duc­tion has excit­ing poten­tial as a fer­til­iser and is truly carbon neg­at­ive. Furthermore, there are plans to pro­duce it in ship­ping con­tain­ers on site at farms where it’s needed. This is a great example of CCU as a renew­able commodity-based tech­no­logy with the capa­city to use carbon diox­ide emis­sions in remote loc­a­tions where there is no oppor­tun­ity for geo­lo­gical stor­age.