‘Carbon negative, dollar positive:’ Initiative aspires to turn a greenhouse gas into profitable products

ANN ARBOR—Removing carbon dioxide from the air and turning it into useful products is the long-term goal of a new initiative at the University of Michigan.

The Global CO2 Initiative is funded with up to $4.5 million—a maximum of $2.5 million in seed funding from Michigan Engineering and an additional $2 million in other fundraising commitments.

The initiative aims to reduce the equivalent of 10 percent of current atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions annually by 2030. That’s roughly 4 gigatons that could potentially be converted into concrete and other construction materials, fuels, and carbon fiber for use in lightweight vehicles and fabrics, for example.

“Our vision is to transform the liability of carbon dioxide emissions into an economic opportunity,” said Volker Sick, associate vice president for research of natural sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan and Global CO2 Initiative lead. “We believe innovations in carbon dioxide removal and utilization technologies can generate a carbon-negative, dollar-positive effect that will reduce emission footprints while generating billions of dollars of economic activity in the decades ahead.”

The Global CO2 Initiative combines the assets of the San Francisco non-profit CO2 Sciences with what was previously the Beyond Carbon Neutral initiative at the U-M Energy Institute. While both endeavors aimed to accelerate the rate at which carbon dioxide is removed from the air, CO2 Sciences worked to find uses for that extracted greenhouse gas. The board of CO2 Sciences elected to donate its assets to U-M in order to leverage its resources and ecosystem.

“Access to U-M’s relationships with researchers, policymakers, and industry partners, paired with its world-class faculty and facilities, creates a well-positioned ecosystem to support the deployment of carbon management technologies with players from around the world,” said Bernard J. David, who founded CO2 Sciences and announced it at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2016. “And mass adoption of carbon utilization and removal technologies across multiple sectors is critical to meeting our common challenge of reducing the effects of climate change.”

U-M is creating an infrastructure to support researchers through technology assessment, development and commercialization of CO2-based products. The initiative’s primary strategy is to drive the development of technologies that can capture and convert carbon dioxide into a commodity—providing commercial incentives to lower the concentration in the atmosphere.

As a first step, the initiative will deploy, for free download, a first-of-its-kind toolkit that establishes a common model for assessing the climate and economic impacts of different technologies in the carbon conversion industry, as well as of CO2-based products themselves. The Life Cycle Analysis and Techno-Economic Analysis Toolkit, abbreviated LCA/TEA, is the only internationally developed system of its kind. As it was developed in collaboration with institutions from around the world, it is well-suited to evaluate technologies for a global market.

XPRIZE will use the toolkit to help select the winner of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, a $20 million incentive prize competition driving breakthrough technology innovation and commercialization in CO2 conversion. The winning team will convert the most CO2 emissions into products with the highest value, and this toolkit will help to assess life cycle emissions of these solutions.

The toolkit is designed to help researchers and industry evaluate which carbon removal approaches or carbon-based products are most promising. Similar tools were instrumental in the ‘90s as R&D for advanced electric vehicle batteries scaled up.

“This is a bold approach to tackling one of the most daunting challenges facing society,” said Alec D. Gallimore, who is the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and a professor both of aerospace engineering and of applied physics. “The Global CO2 Initiative leverages the strength of the expansive sustainability ecosystem at U-M, and it exemplifies Michigan Engineering’s drive to serve the common good.”

U-M is home to world-class programs and institutes in engineering, sustainability, public policy and beyond, including the U-M Energy Institute, Michigan Engineering, the School for Environment and Sustainability and the Graham Sustainability Institute.

“The Global CO2 Initiative provides an important opportunity to advance our common mission of developing innovative technologies and approaches to solving some of the most complex sustainability challenges we face locally and globally,” said Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at U-M and an interdisciplinary climate scientist.

Initial research partners for the toolkit include the Technical University of Berlin, the University of Sheffield, RWTH Aachen and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam. U-M is continuing to expand funding commitments and research partners for this initiative.

The $2.5 million in seed funding from Michigan Engineering is part of its new Blue Sky Initiative designed to encourage daring research with high potential for societal impact.


About the Global CO2 Initiative at the University of Michigan

The Initiative develops and drives the deployment of technologies and solutions that can capture and convert carbon dioxide into a commodity. Our goal is to reduce the equivalent of 10 percent of current atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions annually by 2030 through the commercialization of CO2-based products that have the capability of being “carbon negative, dollar positive.”

The Global CO2 Initiative at the University of Michigan brings together critical stakeholders from various disciplines to discover breakthrough innovations and solve complex sustainability challenges at a local and global level.

For more information, visit Global CO2 Initiative and follow the Initiative on Twitter at @reuseCO2.

Supplemental quotes:

“Reversing the detrimental effects of climate change is everyone’s problem. The Global CO2 Initiative is a refreshing solution because it combines the talent of the U-M faculty and institutes with the resources of an entire community of stakeholders: academic collaborators, industry partners, economists, and policymakers,” said Bart M. Bartlett, interim director of the U-M Energy Institute and professor of chemistry.

“Deploying CO2 capture and utilization technologies can not only help reduce industrial emission footprints but also create new market opportunities and economic activity. Carbon utilization technologies can immediately target products with significant market volume, such as concrete, aggregates, and high-value materials, which will help drive the market incentives needed for capture of industrial carbon dioxide emissions,” said Ellen Williams, professor at the University of Maryland and former head of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and former board member of CO2 Sciences.

“Global CO2 emissions continue to accelerate, and the international community must take aggressive measures to reduce, reverse and remove carbon dioxide emissions. Reducing emissions is not enough. We also must employ carbon dioxide removal, conversion and utilization technologies to meet growing climate challenges to achieve a 1.5°C future, this technology is critical to our overall approach,” said Thomas Lovejoy, senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation, professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University, and former board member of CO2 Sciences.