Updated on 2021-11-30 by Adam Hardy
BBC Futures ran an article on carbon capture from aluminium smelting in Iceland. Heavy industry CO2 emissions make for a heavy carbon footprint and it’s not just from burning fossil fuels: there are massive CO2 emissions from cement production, steel and aluminium smelting and the chemicals sector. I spoke to an engineer who worked in heavy industry for decades (my father) and this is what he had to say about the issue.
He might not have had global warming and climate change on his agenda all his life, but he’s been around long enough to know that CO2 emissions from heavy industry are a complicated and expensive problem to deal with.
Vast amounts of energy principally from coal are needed because of the very high temperatures involved, and then the process of changing ore dug out of the ground into raw aluminium needs lots of carbon for the electrolysis reaction.
The problem is compounded because high tech research into the problems throws up new ways of doing things, supposedly better for the environment but unproven in practice and demanding of large amounts of time and investment.
The aluminium and steel producers can only afford to seriously consider such improvements near the end of life of existing factories and furnaces, i.e. scrapping and building new on a fresh site – or selling to another producer who is not so environmentally conscious.
CO2 Emissions and the Way the Economy works
Very big money and lots of jobs are involved, which makes for political bombshells. If people want cars and aeroplanes and washing machines, somebody has to produce the material from which they are made, but an effective material scrappage system or policy and environmentally conscious new product designs utilising recovered material would help a lot because it would reduce the amount of smelting and new raw material used.
If society wants low carbon heavy industry in short order, it has a difficult choice: (a) step in to interrupt the slow process of end-of-life factory retirement to speed up new investment or (b) let new low carbon industry crush the old dinosaurs, destroying jobs in the process.
I discussed that here already: Coal has to go
Most likely it will be a bit of both, with a lot of recycling thrown in. But one thing is for sure, the industry will require yet more energy to capture the CO2 released by the chemical reaction, even if it’s all powered by renewables. What to do with tonnes of captured CO2 is the next question – Iceland might have found one way to deal with it but it’s unlikely they’ll offer to bury anyone else’s CO2.
These are our salvation technologies, whether they exist already and can be scaled up to industrial level, or need inventing still, at a pace of innovation not seen for decades or even centuries.