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Keywords:

  • carbon dioxide fixation;
  • carbon storage;
  • green chemistry;
  • supercritical fluids;
  • sustainable chemistry

Abstract

As a carbon-based life form living in a predominantly carbon-based environment, it is not surprising that we have created a carbon-based consumer society. Our principle sources of energy are carbon-based (coal, oil, and gas) and many of our consumer goods are derived from organic (i.e., carbon-based) chemicals (including plastics, fabrics and materials, personal care and cleaning products, dyes, and coatings). Even our large-volume inorganic-chemicals-based industries, including fertilizers and construction materials, rely on the consumption of carbon, notably in the form of large amounts of energy. The environmental problems which we now face and of which we are becoming increasingly aware result from a human-induced disturbance in the natural carbon cycle of the Earth caused by transferring large quantities of terrestrial carbon (coal, oil, and gas) to the atmosphere, mostly in the form of carbon dioxide. Carbon is by no means the only element whose natural cycle we have disturbed: we are transferring significant quantities of elements including phosphorus, sulfur, copper, and platinum from natural sinks or ores built up over millions of years to unnatural fates in the form of what we refer to as waste or pollution. However, our complete dependence on the carbon cycle means that its disturbance deserves special attention, as is now manifest in indicators such as climate change and escalating public concern over global warming. As with all disturbances in materials balances, we can seek to alleviate the problem by (1) dematerialization: a reduction in consumption; (2) rematerialization: a change in what we consume; or (3) transmaterialization: changing our attitude towards resources and waste. The “low-carbon” mantra that is popularly cited by organizations ranging from nongovernmental organizations to multinational companies and from local authorities to national governments is based on a combination of (1) and (2) (reducing carbon consumption though greater efficiency and lower per capita consumption, and replacing fossil energy sources with sources such as wind, wave, and solar, respectively). “Low carbon” is of inherently less value to the chemical and plastics industries at least in terms of raw materials although a version of (2), the use of biomass, does apply, especially if we use carbon sources that are renewable on a human timescale. There is however, another renewable, natural source of carbon that is widely available and for which greater utilization would help restore material balance and the natural cycle for carbon in terms of resource and waste. CO2, perhaps the most widely discussed and feared chemical in modern society, is as fundamental to our survival as water, and like water we need to better understand the human as well as natural production and consumption of CO2 so that we can attempt to get these into a sustainable balance. Current utilization of this valuable resource by the chemical industry is only 90 megatonne per year, compared to the 26.3 gigatonne CO2 generated annually by combustion of fossil fuels for energy generation, as such significant opportunities exist for increased utilization of CO2 generated from industrial processes. It is also essential that renewable energy is used if CO2 is to be utilized as a C1 building block.