New Technologies May Rebalance the Carbon Cycle
By Lynne Lescott
Oppressive heat, wildfires, torrential rain, catastrophic flooding, persistent tornadoes, and a generally unsettled climate: North Americans have experienced it all this year, and it’s troubling. Carbon is the element driving these conditions and understanding it can crack open new solutions.
Carbon Isn’t the Bad Guy
Living organisms can’t exist without carbon. It’s the key component of organic compounds—carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acids, and lipids—that cells need to perform life-supporting functions.
Carbon isn’t lazy, either. It’s in constant motion within, between, and around us as we breathe and speak, as plants perform photosynthesis, as marine life sheds exoskeletal matter, and as livestock grazes. Carbon is also released during daily human activities, plus during most agricultural, industrial, and commercial processes.
Because organisms use carbon, they also store it. Carbon is found trapped in Earth’s minerals, rocks, matter, and atmosphere. Earth, and most things within and above it, serves as a home for carbon storage units.
Carbon’s constant movement in and between these storage units is called the carbon cycle. Despite its nomadic nature, the overall amount of carbon in the cycle never changes because, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, our Earth and its atmosphere are one closed environment and carbon can’t escape.
Carbon’s sum quantity may not change but the amount stored in each part of the cycle fluctuates as carbon is released, absorbed and used, and released again. The cycle is a natural process that is typically balanced by an equal amount of carbon release and absorption across its phases and parts. But human activities that send stored carbon into the atmosphere at increasing levels can shift the release-and-absorption balance quicker than the cycle can adapt.
The bad guy? Emissions. Household appliances and cars as well as industrial and commercial transportation and manufacturing processes contribute to increased emissions and carbon release.
Despite its nomadic nature, the overall amount of carbon in the cycle never changes.
Giant Carbon Technology Investments
With broad scientific consensus that human activity has altered the carbon cycle’s natural balance, most restorative solutions focus on changing human activities that trigger the imbalance. Some solutions can be implemented at individual and household levels. Large-scale carbon capture and storage solutions are currently used by some of the world’s biggest industrial organizations. ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical are two, and the agricultural company Corteva is part of a Greenhouse Gas Protocol Land Sector and Removals Guidance pilot.
More solutions will come, too. Millions of investment dollars were awarded to U.S. industrial, energy, and academic organizations to create technologies that can replace traditional carbon-emitting processes. In June 2023, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced $135 million of funding for 40 decarbonization projects across industrial and academic sectors.
DOE investments range from a $1 million award for Case Western Reserve University to develop a zero-carbon metal production process to $13 million for Siemens Energy and its partners, including Dow Chemical and the Southwest Research Institute, to design and implement new turbocracker and process steam technologies that can replace current high emissions methods.
All We Need Is Air We Can Breathe
Air monitoring is a basic practice that helps experts understand the status of the carbon cycle’s balance. According to the U.S. EPA, three monitoring methods are commonly used:
- Continuous emissions monitoring systems (CEMS): measure of actual emissions from a stationary source.
- Continuous opacity monitoring systems (COMS): measure of light’s intensity at an emissions source. If a light source is obscured by heavy particulate matter it’s considered “opaque,” and emissions need to be corrected.
- Continuous parametric monitoring systems (CPMS): include measuring temperature, pressure, flow rate, and other parameters that reflect the efficacy of site or regional air pollution control systems.
Emissions testing and air quality monitoring are one aspect of carbon management. The EPA’s methods provide detailed procedures that emissions-intensive industrial and commercial organizations must implement to meet air quality standards. Cooperative efforts like the Canada-U.S. Air Quality Agreement, established in 1991, are another tool.
The most urgent efforts are large-scale investments in new technologies and processes that can help rebalance the carbon cycle sooner, versus later. Earth, and everything within and above it, are counting on it.
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Lynne Lescott is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.