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Mining the atmosphere

Out of thin air

Oct 19, 2023 | MICHAEL HAGMANN

To prevent irreversible and damaging changes to the Earth's climate system, we need to remove excess (man-made) CO2 from the atmosphere. This is the goal of a large-scale research initiative at Empa: Mining the Atmosphere. To start with, Empa is hosting two events on the topic, one for professionals and one for the general public.

The "Mining the atmosphere" approach: The goal is to develop a completely new global economic model and the associated industrial sector that converts CO2 as the raw material of the future into valuable materials to replace conventional building materials and petrochemicals. Illustration: Empa

Fossil fuels are simply ... brilliant: easy to handle, with a high energy density, versatile, available in large quantities, hence cheap. They are the foundation of our technological progress and prosperity over the last 200 years.

But there's quite a price tag that comes with it: The Earth is heading for climate collapse. Every year, we pump around 9.4 billion tons of carbon (in the form of CO2) into the atmosphere. Natural processes, especially via vegetation and the oceans, partially compensate for this gigantic output. The bottom line, however, is an excess of around 5.1 billion tons of atmospheric carbon – every year. Since 1988, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has been above 350 ppm (parts per million), which is considered the limit for climate stability. If this is exceeded for a longer period of time, the Earth's climate system is in danger of collapsing – with potentially irreversible consequences.

Business as usual is therefore not an option, and even net zero can only be an interim goal. What is needed is a holistic approach that can be both technically implemented and financed. Which brings us to Mining the Atmosphere. In contrast to simply capturing CO2 and storing it in the ground – the necessary first step – the "mining" approach goes much further: The goal is to develop a completely new global economic model and the associated industrial sector that converts CO2 as the raw material of the future into valuable materials to replace conventional building materials and petrochemicals.

This approach calls for a change of perspective: Where raw materials were previously mined underground, the focus is now shifting to the atmospheric "mine". At the same time, this affects society as a whole, which is changing from a CO2-emitting society to a CO2-binding society, via the energy transition heading for net zero over the next 20 years.

That's the idea – the implementation of which is a century-long task for which countless players from research and industry will have to work together. The challenge is to remove an estimated 400 billion tons of carbon (around 1,500 billion tons of CO2) from the atmosphere.

And that is just the beginning. Then it's a matter of converting this carbon into value-adding materials, polymers, construction materials, etc. The construction sector, in particular, has a key role to play here, as concrete and other building materials could bind an enormous amount of atmospheric carbon due to their mass. After being recycled several times, the carbon-containing materials could eventually be deposited as a final carbon sink at the end of their service life.

Seminar RFA Built Environment: Mining the Atmosphere
Will we build with CO2 in the future? The "RFA Built Environment" seminar on 7 November will showcase a wide range of Empa research activities revolving around the concept of "Mining the Atmosphere", i.e. extracting excess CO2 from the atmosphere and using it as a sustainable resource for the construction industry, for instance. The free event is aimed at stakeholders, practitioners and researchers from the construction, building and infrastructure, energy, environment and sustainability sectors. Register by 30 October at:
"wissen2go": Capturing, recycling and storing CO2 to achieve net zero
If Switzerland wants to achieve its goal of zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, it will have to rely on so-called negative emission technologies (NET), processes that capture CO2 from the atmosphere and store it for the long term. In the new issue of "wissen2go" on October 25, we turn our attention to these technologies that are paving the way to a sustainable future. Be inspired by the possibilities that NET research offers us. Participation is free both on-site and via Zoom. Register by October 24 at:
Editor / Media contact

Dr. Michael Hagmann
Phone +41 58 765 4592

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