A trillion dollar industry in the making as technology works out ways to turn carbon into useful materials
Sophia Hamblin Wang

Imagine turning the CO2 from steel and cement into something useful, such as more building materials. That’s the role that emerging technologies could play in meeting our emission reduction targets, as The Fifth Estate heard at the Siemens Digitalise conference in Brisbane heard last week.

It’s a collection of technologies that could be worth US$1 trillion by 2030 as the focus increasingly turns to reversing carbon build up in the atmosphere and not storing it but using it.

Rather than holding our breath for government legislation, Mineral Carbonation International’s Sophia Hamblin Wang says change could happen quickly if emitters could make money out of their carbon dioxide.

Hamblin Wang, chief operations officer for the company, is largely responsible for educating people about her company’s mineral carbonation technology, which could turn CO2 into a money-maker by transforming it into building materials instead of its usual state as a waste product.

Hamblin Wang says the technology, which “permanently and safely” transforms CO2 from a gas to a solid, has been in the works since 2007 and sits in a portfolio of “carbon utilisation” technologies that will ultimately be needed to meet the Paris Agreement climate change targets.

“There’s a real opportunity for the Australian government to stimulate carbon capture and utilisation tech, and for us to all work together,” she told the audience.

“There’s plenty of CO2 to go around, and plenty of opportunities for success for everybody.”

Based on the natural process of weathering rocks from rainfall, CO2 is captured when fossil fuels are burnt and compressed and then transported to a mineral carbonisation plant. 

Serpentine magnesium silicate rock is heated to release water and combined with compressed CO2 to form magnesium carbonate and silica sand, which is used to refill serpentine mines and to make more valuable products. 

It can be processed into cement, pavers, plaster boards and other silica rich products such as low rolling resistance tyres.

The business, a joint venture between Canberra-based GreenMag Group, University of Newcastle (Newcastle Innovation) and Orica, was founded in 2013 after six years of independent research by its founders.

It’s received over $10 million in grants from the NSW and federal governments, including $8.3 million in 2017 from the federal government to advance the pilot program towards industrial applications by taking CO2 from raw flue gas as a potential capture process path from cement and steel industries as well as fossil fuel energy generators.

The company is now working with universities such as Columbia University and the University of New York to make sure it is “using the best research all over the world in order to commercialise the technology.

“We see the key to the future of decarbonisation and not overshooting our 1.5 degree Celcius targets is to work with global industries like steel and cement and other emitters as viewing their emissions as a resource and not just a harmful waste to be dealt with.”

Do we need these sorts of carbon capture and utilisation technologies?

More sceptical observers have viewed these types of technologies as facilitating business as usual practices in energy and transport systems, but there’s increasing support for trying to reverse the carbon build up in the atmosphere.

The carbon capture and utilisation industry offers more benefits than carbon capture and storage, and is attracting more investment (the market for carbon utilisation in industry will be around US $1 trillion by 2030). It creates valuable products such as building materials or fuels that can offset the cost of the process. 

There are some drawbacks to MCi’s mineral carbonisation technology, such as the energy cost of mining and transporting serpentinite. Back in 2017, Professor Peter Cook, geologist and professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne, told The Guardian that although the technology definitely works it’s scalability was in question.

“I think it’s one of these processes where you’ll be able to make money from it in the local area,” Professor Cook said at the time.

“The difficulty is, for instance, we’re getting 36 billion tonnes of CO2 per annum from our use of fossil fuel. It’s important to keep that sort of number in mind when you think about the scale of the thing.”

The business aims to have a demonstration plant up and running soon that can process 5000-10,000 tonnes a year of CO2, with the plan to scale up to a plant that can process 1 million tonnes of CO2 per plant. 

Australia could be a hot spot for carbon utilisation innovation 

Hamlin Wang says Australia is in a strong position to lead the way on this type of innovation.

“The thing is that those technologies are developed everyday, and Australia is in a position where we could be developing those techs and be taking those first mover advantages.

“Australia has a competitive advantage in the way we can process minerals and can produce the built environment. We really need to be increasing our R&D and our collaboration.”

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  1. Orbix in Belgium is using their Carbstone technology to produce building blocs and pavers from byproducts of steelindustry or crushed buildingfines. CO2 is used in combination with the fines as a binder replacing cement or limestone. They have a pilotplant since 2014 and before the end of 2019 there will be a plant producing blocs for commercial markets. Other plants will start up in 2020 and 2021 producing bricks and pavers with this technology. The Carbstone technology is a perfect example of circular economy.

  2. Carbon8 Systems have already developed the technology to treat Residues from Energy from Waste plants. They licensed the technology in the UK where there are now 3 commercial plants. Carbon8 Systems now have a system which can capture the CO2 from flue gas directly in the Residues without the need for expensive purification of the CO2.

  3. I’d like to explore the use of this tech with waste to energy plants as these produce less GHG and carbon than fossil fuel and are considered as key in the move towards renewables and our Paris accord targets. What better way of trapping carbon than in the materials by-products from waste streams that we can’t recycle. That are destined to go to landfill and produce methane.

  4. Good luck, Australia.

    The British government under David Cameron famously offered a £1bn prize for anyone who could make carbon capture and storage work at industrial scale. It was never claimed, because nobody could make it work.

    The future is in decarbonisation. Not trying to prop up carbon-intensive industries.