Using Waste Carbon Feedstocks to Produce Chemicals

E. Nesbitt
U.S. International Trade Commission,
United States

Keywords: CO2, industrial emissions, chemicals, carbon capture utilization, carbontech, United States, the European Union, China, waste carbon, fermentation, electrolysis


Emerging carbon capture utilization (CCU) technologies potentially allow chemical companies and other manufacturers to capture waste carbon—in the form of carbon monoxide (CO) and/or carbon dioxide (CO2)—from industrial emissions and process it into sustainable, value-added biofuels and chemicals. Using CCU technologies to consume waste feedstocks can cut production costs; benefit the environment; monetize industrial emissions; and, depending on the region, allow companies to meet CO2 emissions goals. Moreover, using waste carbon to make chemicals can also reduce manufacturers’ reliance on fossil fuels such as crude petroleum and natural gas, an important factor, particularly for the European Union and China, given the volatility in sourcing and pricing of fossil fuels, especially those that are imported. This working paper: 1) explains carbon’s critical role in the production of chemicals and as a target for industrial emissions reduction; 2) describes new CCU technologies stemming from advances in fields such as industrial biotechnology and electrolysis; 3) identifies sectors and geographical locales in which these technologies are being adopted, as well as factors driving adoption; and 4) examines potential implications for U.S. and global industrial competitiveness within one sector with high emissions, the steel industry. This paper concludes that these CCU technologies are promoting a paradigm shift that has the potential to increase firm-level competitiveness for manufacturers that adopt these processes, while also reducing the environmental impact of these manufacturers. To the extent that these technologies become widely adopted, they could result in substantial increases in supply of such chemicals globally, with potential disruptive impacts on trade and prices.