Editorial Feature

How “Minus CO2 Factories” Could Help Save the Planet

Carbonauten is a German clean technology startup on a mission to remove anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. The company plans to build “minus CO2 factories” that house waste carbon activation and biorefinery processes under the same roof.

minus co2, carbonauten, carbon capture, co2 storage

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Looking to Nature for Climate Change Solutions

Excessive CO2 emissions caused by human society since the Industrial Revolution two hundred years ago are now widely understood to be a primary driver of climate change. Excessive CO2 in the air, water, and soil lead to global warming, ocean acidification, crop failure, and a host of other interconnected problems that combine to pose an existential threat to life on Earth as we know it.

Now, we are beginning to introduce cleaner technology that causes fewer or even no CO2 emissions, such as renewable energy. However, to reach global climate targets, we will likely have to remove CO2 from the environment as well.

Nature provides some of the best examples of processes that deal with environmental threats. Plants remove CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, using its carbon (C) molecules to build biomass and emitting its oxygen (O2) molecules as breathable air. About half of a tree’s mass is C. This C is metabolized by microorganisms when the tree dies and falls, a process that releases CO2 as well as methane and nitrous oxide.

This rotting process is arrested, however, if the tree’s biomass is heated to extremely high temperatures (between 400° and 700° C) without the presence of oxygen. In this process, known as pyrolytic carbonization, biomass is transformed into a physically stable biocarbon that cannot decompose. In this way, the C that the tree is built from (removed from atmospheric CO2 before returning the O2) cannot reenter the atmosphere: it has been trapped or sequestered.

Carbonauten’s carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology use the same pyrolysis process to transform any kind of carbonate biomass into products that lock C into stable, unreleasable structures, or provide base-load capable renewably sourced energy.

Combining Carbonization and Biorefinery Processes

Carbonauten’s process combines two clean technologies at the same site to create a value chain. These are carbonization and biorefinery.

Carbonization is achieved through pyrolysis. The company works with numerous sources of carbon mass, including wood waste from the construction industry and even seed husks from agriculture. The carbon mass is subjected to high temperatures without oxygen to chemically transform it into activated carbon.

This carbonization process outputs high-quality pyrolysis oils. These carbon-rich oils are comparable to naturally occurring oil. The next step in the Carbonauten process is to refine these oils and create useful products out of them. This takes place in an integrated biorefinery under the same roof as carbonization technology.

A biorefinery converts biomass into various useful products as well as energy. They take an initial raw material (in Carbonauten’s case this is pyrolysis oil) and fraction it into various intermediates (such as carbohydrates, proteins, and triglycerides). These intermediates are then converted into useful products.

carbonauten in under 1 minute

Video Credit: carbonauten/Youtube.com

Each step of this combined carbonization and biorefinery process is its own “cascading phase,” providing value from waste material at no CO2 emissions expense.

“Minus CO2 Factories” Making Useful Products with Negative CO2 Emissions

Carbonauten says that its combination of carbonization and biorefining process is an industry first. According to the company, the “minus CO2 factories” concept enables rapid response and adaptation to dynamic markets. These factories are flexible in terms of input (the kinds of carbon mass they can process) and output (the exact products they manufacture).

This means that production can be adapted to work with different and changing material flows and product requirements in just a few hours. The process also means that carbon mass with impurities like stones, metals, and plastics can be carbonized in bulk.

The factories also use static, slow pyrolysis technology which does not require any moving parts. This makes them less vulnerable to wear and tear, and comparatively easy to scale and ship around the world.

The basis of the useful products made in these factories is activated carbon. Activated C is used as an adsorbent in the chemicals, medicine, automotive, and manufacturing industries but is typically produced from fossil sources using energy-intensive methods.

Carbonauten’s activated C can be processed into soil additives for agriculture, recycled polymers for manufacturing, and dopants for cement.

Removing Gigatons of CO2 by 2030

Carbonauten plans to rapidly scale and spread its “minus CO2 factories” concept throughout the rest of this decade. The company’s stated ambition is to reduce greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere by order of gigatons by 2030.

It will achieve this by deploying a large number of modular “minus CO2 factories”. Rather than building a few complex, expensive, large-scale carbonization and biorefinery plants, the company will use many decentralized facilities to achieve an even greater CO2 removal impact.

Smaller factories spread around the world will minimize transportation costs and structural redundancy by collecting biomass from a 70 km radius. They can provide a reliable energy supply for local industry. Small factories can support more sustainable, self-sufficient biomass ecosystems in smaller defined areas.

Next Steps for Carbonauten

In the short term, Carbonauten is continuing to develop its carbonization and biorefinery technologies. It recently received a €1 million research grant jointly with Germany’s University of Hohenheim to continue this research and development.

In a press release, Carbonauten stated its intention to deploy a number of decentralized factories in the Baden-Württemberg region of Germany as soon as possible. From here, it will continue to deploy “minus CO2 factories” around the world until it reaches its “gigatons of carbon” target.

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References and Further Reading

One million euros in funding for research project by carbonauten GmbH and the University of Hohenheim. (2022) [Online] Carbonauten. Available at: https://carbonauten.de/en/one-million-euros-in-funding-for-research-project-by-carbonauten-gmbh-and-the-university-of-hohenheim/ (Accessed on 17 January 2023).

Carbonauten. [Online] Carbonauten. Available at: https://carbonauten.de/ (Accessed on 17 January 2023).

Cherubni, F. (2010). The biorefinery concept: Using biomass instead of oil for producing energy and chemicals. Energy Conversion and Management. doi.org/10.1016/j.enconman.2010.01.015.

Lehmann, J., et al (2021). Biochar in climate change mitigation. Nature Geoscience. doi.org/10.1038/s41561-021-00852-8.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Ben Pilkington

Written by

Ben Pilkington

Ben Pilkington is a freelance writer who is interested in society and technology. He enjoys learning how the latest scientific developments can affect us and imagining what will be possible in the future. Since completing graduate studies at Oxford University in 2016, Ben has reported on developments in computer software, the UK technology industry, digital rights and privacy, industrial automation, IoT, AI, additive manufacturing, sustainability, and clean technology.


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