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Profiting from pollution

November 01, 2018
By: Mark Skinner

Companies already repurpose trash into marketable products, but can the same concept work with air pollution? The National Academies of Science provides a detailed answer to this question in a committee report outlining the necessary research and innovation investments to foster the commercial exploitation of carbon dioxide and methane gas emissions generated by our current industrial economy. Gaseous Carbon Waste Streams Utilization: Status and Research Needs presents a comprehensive public-private approach to creating jobs, wealth and entire new industries while reducing the environmental cost of our carbon-intensive economy.  

Presently the U.S. generates greenhouse gas emissions exceeding 15 tons per capita annually, well above a global per capita average of what the biosphere can absorb and still maintain tolerable temperatures for plant and animal life to continue to exist as we‘ve known it throughout human history. The majority of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions come from electricity generation (34.1 percent) followed closely by transportation (33.6 percent), then industrial energy use (15.2 percent). The fourth greatest generator is residential energy use (5.5 percent).  Natural gas and petroleum systems (31 percent), enteric/digestive fermentation (26 percent), landfills (16 percent) and manure management from industrial agriculture (10 percent) dominate methane generation.

While scientists around the world are calling for urgent reductions in greenhouse gas generation, industrial economies — led by China and the U.S.  — will continue to rely on fossil fuels to sustain their economies in the near term.  The new National Academies report outlines a research and innovation strategy to reduce the climate warming impact of the carbon gases generated by burning fossil fuels by converting those waste streams into useful products.

Promising product categories identified range from fuels, plastics and other chemicals through biological and chemical processing to construction materials and other products through mineralization — yet the committee authoring the report recognizes considerable R&D is still needed for some of the most significant conversion of waste gases to commercial utility. The committee also outlines improvements that should be made to life-cycle technology assessment tools and techno-economic analysis to help industry recognize and fully appreciate costs and opportunities.

Gaseous Carbon Waste Streams Utilization: Status and Research Needs is available here.


carbon capture, energy