GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Cutting the world’s carbon emissions has been a main goal for years in the effort to turn the tide on climate change. But cutting emissions is only one half of the equation. To prevent dangerous levels of warming, the world also needs to work on removing carbon already in the atmosphere.

The technology to pull carbon from the air already exists but it needs to be used more readily and more efficiently.

“(Carbon removal) is where you’re taking CO2 out of a smokestack, or literally vacuuming it out of the air and then doing something with that,” Susan Fancy told News 8.

Fancy is the program manager for research and commercialization at the University of Michigan’s Global CO2 Initiative. The program is working on four areas of research centered around expanding carbon removal tech and promoting its importance.

Fancy says once you capture carbon dioxide, you have three viable options, including turning that material into something useful.

“When I graduated in 1991, all you cared about is: ‘What are you trying to make? And what’s the cheapest way to get there?'”

Susan Fancy, U-M Global CO2 Initiative

“Once you capture CO2, if you have green hydrogen, you can make anything. You can make any chemical, you can make any plastic, you can make just about any synthetic fiber,” Fancy said. “Another way is to recycle, make recycled plastics. The third way is to use plants (instead of fossil products). … We need to look long term where we’re using fossil carbon monoxide to make our stuff. We need to shift to one of these three sources that then will be sustainable for society over the long haul.”

The Global CO2 Initiative is focused on four areas of research. Outside of educating students and expanding the field, researchers are focused on learning more about the life cycle of carbon.

“When I graduated in 1991, all you cared about is: ‘What are you trying to make? And what’s the cheapest way to get there?'” Fancy said. “Today, the thinking needs to be: ‘What am I trying to make? What are the environmental and climate change impacts of what I’m trying to make over the life cycle? What are the social impacts of that product? And then how can I synthesize all of those factors to make something that’s good for society over the long haul?'”

ECONOMIC INCENTIVES

Carbon removal isn’t only a key factor in the fight against climate change, it’s also a huge economic opportunity. A marketing study done by the Global CO2 Initiative in 2016 found that by 2030, the carbon removal industry would be an estimated $1 trillion market.

Right now, captured carbon can be used to create concrete, fuels and fertilizers, but there is lots of opportunity for growth while also making a positive impact on the environment. The Global CO2 Initiative is working on an update to that 2016 study. The final results aren’t expected to be released until later this year, but Fancy said its projections for the carbon removal industry are expected to be ahead of schedule.

It will take time for the carbon removal industry to develop, but the world doesn’t have time to wait. Fancy said it’s important to start removing carbon now, even if it means we aren’t using it for another product. She said the main solution for now should be funneling the carbon deep underground.

An infographic illustrates the pressure on carbon dioxide as it is buried underground. (Courtesy: National Energy Technology Laboratory)

The concept is called carbon storage. The U.S. Department of Energy is investigating five storage methods for pumping excess CO2 down into the Earth. The most promising is to use saline formations.

Deep within the Earth’s crust, pockets naturally form within the rock. Those pockets hold saline, which is essentially a brine or salty water. At about half a mile below the surface, the pressure and temperature keep the carbon dioxide above its critical point, keeping it a liquid instead of converting to gas. Some of the carbon dioxide will inevitably dissolve into the saline while more will combine with nearby hydrogen and become bicarbonate.

But as promising as carbon removal technology appears to be, it’s not the final solution.

“Long-term what we don’t want to have happen is to use this field of carbon capture to extend the usage of (fossil fuels). We do not want to do that,” Fancy told News 8. “‘Oh, we can just capture the emissions from a coal plant. So it’s OK to be using them in 2100.’ That’s not the way we want to be thinking about this. But as a bridging strategy? Absolutely. The quicker we can get any plant producing emissions retrofitted with this technology, capturing that CO2 and either piping it underground, saline formations, using it for any soil recovery, using it to make stuff, the better.”