Carbon Capture: A Wild West of Opportunity

Imagine you’re sitting on a tree branch on a nice sunny day… 🌞

But this tree branch is the only thing between you and an expansive void of nothingness permeated by ever-receding blotches of light.

Inconvenient… right? 😕

The only thing more inconvenient would be to start cutting down the branch for some reason???

On the one hand, you could sell the wood. But on the other, that really DOESN’T make sense if you consider the cost of cutting down the branch. 

🔑: Sadly, us humans won’t consider the cost of cutting down the branch. 

What's with this bizarre story about a branch??? 🤔

The story of us humans and the branch is actually related to a lot of environmental problems around the world. I’m going to explain how it relates to an increasingly-studied environmental technology: carbon capture. 

Section 0: Wait Whaaaaaaaaat????? 😮

(Source: / legit friends)
If you haven’t heard of carbon capture, this section is for you :-) Otherwise, feel free to skip it!

First, things first. Carbon capture is a technology to separate carbon dioxide (CO2) from air. This air can be pulled right out of the sky (direct air capture). Or maybe it’s pulled out of a specific location, like a factory smokestack ( point source carbon capture).

Now why do we want to separate CO2 from the air?

Two words… Climate. Change.

To be fair, climate change isn’t extreme natural disasters. This is just an exaggeration.

CO2 gas in the atmosphere is the primary cause of climate change. CO2 naturally exists in the atmosphere, but humans have been adding more at an ASTONISHING rate!

We’ve released much more than 800 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere in the past 30 years. That weighs more than 5 Mount Everests! 🗻😮

 (Data sources above and weight of all humans. Vector by macrovector / Freepik)

That’s a LOT of CO2. 😶 All this CO2 is like a blanket wrapping around the planet. And just like a blanket, it warms the planet up.

To stop this warming, we need to stop releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere (making the problem worse). But we also need to remove emissions ALREADY IN the atmosphere (repairing past damage).

That’s why carbon capture technology exists. To remove CO2 from point sources (like factory smokestacks) before more gets into the atmosphere. And to remove CO2 already in the atmosphere.

🔑: Carbon Capture is the ONLY technology that can remove CO2 ALREADY IN the atmosphere.

Because carbon capture technology is special like that, dozens of companies are raising hundreds of millions of dollars in private funding to develop it.

These companies don’t all work on the separating-CO2-from-air part. If you think about it, you also have to do SOMEthing with the CO2 you pull out of a smokestack or the atmosphere. 

  • One option is to pump the CO2 underground, where it stays there for millions of years. This is known as carbon sequestration/storage
  • A sub-option stores CO2 in plants or oceans, but it's controversial how well we can control nature. 😕 Still, nature already cycles billions of tonnes of CO2 per year by itself!
  • Another option is to use the CO2 to create something useful. Like fuels, food, building materials, etc. This is known as carbon utilisation.

All these approaches together are called carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS). It’s kind of the big ‘label’ given to the industry: “The solar industry is up 2.82 points on the NASDAQ and the CCUS industry is…” 👔

(Source: / South Park)

Big acronyms aside, the key idea is that more companies than ever are working in this industry.

But it’s not ‘growing’ as planned…

Section 1: Why Isn’t CCUS Growing? And what about the tree at the beginning???

Here, I talk about a LOT of different problems in the CCUS industry. I put engagement > brevity. If you want a shorter alternative, see here and skip to the next section!

First off — what do I mean by CCUS isn’t growing?

  1. From the 1970s to 2020, we’ve had just 26 commercial carbon capture and storage facilities
  2. Under 0.5% of all green technology investment goes to CCUS annually. 
    Imagine you bought $99.95 shoes (investments like solar/wind) vs. $0.50 chewing gum (CCUS investment).
(Source: pngkeypngwing)

Not great progress… so I started researching WHY this is true. I found four major causes. Let’s start with the one that involves the tree 😁

Problem 1A: Unclear benefits, all-too-clear costs

The idea behind cutting down the tree branch to sell it for wood is… it’s pretty short-sighted. It doesn’t consider the full cost of cutting down the branch— not just having one less branch, but falling into the expansive void of nothingness permeated by ever-receding blotches of light. 😱

This is THE biggest issue with CCUS today:

🔑: The purely FINANCIAL costs and benefits of CCUS don’t consider its FULL costs and benefits. 

The equivalent of the ‘valuable branch’ is the valuable atmosphere and its greenhouse effect. This is what lets us have a livable planet compared to every other icy rock we’ve seen in space. And cutting down the branch is like putting Mount Everests of CO2 into the atmosphere, degrading its value.

But what IS the value of the atmosphere??? It’s hard to tell the value of its benefits. If we mess up the atmosphere too much, all life dies. Ie. the trillions of dollars in the world are all useless. That makes the atmosphere pretty valuable. 🤔

On the other hand, we’re not likely to mess up the atmosphere to the point where all life dies. So what are the costs if the planet gets 1.5°C hotter on average? Or 2°C hotter on average? The answer is unclear

Meanwhile, the cost of CCUS is perfectly clear. It’s at least $5/tonne of CO2 removed by plants, $20/tonne of CO2 captured at natural gas plants, $100/tonne of CO2 for CO2 stored in building materials, and $150/tonne of CO2 for CO2 removed directly from the atmosphere.

I mean sure, there are such huge differences in those approaches that it makes zero sense to compare them based on just their cost… but for the people paying for CCUS at the end of the day ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

(Source: / MOODMAN)

So it’s like there’s a giant billboard that says: “Sell wood for $10/tonne!” It gives us an incentive to cut down the branch. But the cost of cutting the branch is unclear. (The expansive void we could fall into is far away.)

Now, it’s worth noting that some countries around the world will artificially put a price on CO2 emissions — ex: via carbon taxes, carbon permits, etc.

🔑: But half of carbon pricing is under $10/tonne…

While the costs of CCUS are almost always more than that 😕

Also, some companies will voluntarily buy carbon offsets, where they can pay a very wide range of prices (and thus decide valuable CCUS/the branch is). Some companies pay a lot more than others… 

@Department of Energy & Environment, @ Stripe accepting graphic design contracts 😉😁 (Sources: pngwing, pngimgnicepng)

But by and large, CCUS’s financial costs outweigh its financial benefits. Even though it’s a unique environmental technology that can remove CO2 emissions already in the atmosphere. And even though CCUS is feasible in dirty industries like steel production, where no other environmental technology is. We still continue trying to cut down the branch…

🔑: Until the FINANCIAL benefits of CCUS are CLEARLY greater than its costs, it will be underfunded.

Problem 1B: CO2 is only used in niche applications

Another issue for CCUS is that it’s getting a bit… old. 👴

CCUS has been around since 1972, when it was first used to boost production of everyone’s favourite profitably-overexploited-resource: oil 🤑 Since then, only 26 commercial CCUS plants have been built… 

For context, other inventions launched in the 1970s were: the first cell phones, floppy disks, portable cassette players, Apple Computers, and VCRs. EACH of these has sold billions of units from who KNOWS how many plants. 

Why has CCUS not grown like other technologies from the 1970s? Well, it’s only had one big market. The vast majority of CO2 has always been used for increasing oil extraction. CO2 gas is injected into an oil reservoir, which forces more oil out — this is called CO2-based Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). 

(Source: / Denbury Resources)

Though this approach has been working for decades, it has a few issues:

  1. You’re capturing CO2 to be sustainable and then you use it to extract more oil??? 😶 It’s like putting ‘protective’ coating on the tree branch, but that makes the branch brittle and it cracks.
    To be fair, EOR CAN be carbon-negative. (Ie. CO2 pumped underground > CO2 burned from oil use) But it’s often not, because…
  2. Only 25% of CO2 used for EOR comes from human sources (ex: factory smokestacks). The rest is just extracted from underground deposits, just like oil. This is non-renewable and creates CO2 emissions.
  3. CO2 can only be profitably used for EOR when oil prices are above $70 / barrel. This is because you need to balance the cost of pumping CO2 into the ground with the value of the extra oil that can be sold from this.
  4. CO2 for EOR represents the vast majority of the current market for CO2: 206 million tonnes/year. But this is nowhere near the 5+ Mount Everests of CO2 we emit/year. It’s more like 0.12% of Mount Everest. 
🔑: We’d need uses of CO2 to be 1000x larger to offset the CO2 we emit.

Though there are other issues with EOR, I’ll stop here. And though there are other uses of CO2 (ex: to put in carbonated drinks), they’re MUCH smaller than EOR.

So, we can only use CO2 for a niche application under niche conditions, of which a niche subset is sustainable… Talk about small scale! It’s like we want applications of CO2 to be like large factories while they’re more like DIY crafts for toddlers. 😖

Checkpoint: Two more problems to go!

Problem 1C: New CCUS projects are hard to pay for

I know what you’re thinking… 

“Money is all material possession, man! 👿 I’m here to save tree branches!” 🌴

But this isn’t toooo boring and financial. Here’s the caveman explanation :

CCUS need big machine need build build need $$$$
(Source: / Andrew & Pete)

No really! 😁 The first big expense for CCUS projects is just all the physical infrastructure that needs to be built. 

  • For example, a pipeline to transport CO2 costs over $1 million per kilometer. It might be built between a factory smokestack and a well where it can be pumped underground
  • Or digging a well a hundreds of metres underground to pump CO2 there costs over $1 million per well.
What digging a well hundreds of meters underground looks like :-)

By the time you’re done building all the physical infrastructure, new CCUS plant cost tens of millions of dollars! It’s like we’re putting up braces to support the tree branch, but only golden braces will work. 😭

And then come the regulations and risk. I’ve only found statistics about this for carbon storage, but multiple industry experts have told me about the issues in carbon capture and utilisation as well.

  • Within carbon storage, safety monitoring costs can be more than operations (pumping CO2 underground). We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars per year per carbon storage site. 
  • Monitoring techniques vary widely, as they’re negotiated on a project-by-project basis with regulators. They often involve sensors on wells (ex: to measure temperature, pressure, etc.) and taking seismic data where CO2 is pumped underground.
  • On a sidenote, these negotiations with regulators can take up to 5 years to get the right permits to build carbon storage sites. (Fig 4–2)😱
  • Because there haven’t been many CCUS plants, the risks are unclear. Industry experts told me insurance companies charge tens of millions of dollars in premiums over the lifetime of carbon storage projects. 
  • And insurance like this is important in the tiny chance that CO2 leaks (escapes from where it was stored) and companies have to pay heavy fines. It’s like paying insurance for the risk of slipping off the tree branch (unlikely) while we’re actively cutting it down (already happening).
  • And lastly, governments like the US may charge companies ‘safety deposits’ that can be over $50 million. (pg. 124) This is before companies can even get permits to dig a carbon storage well. These safety deposits make sure that any environmental damage can be cleaned up, even if the companies go out of business.

Notice how I didn’t even mention operating costs yet. All the highest costs are for safety and initial construction. 

🔑: Starting a CCUS plant is harder than running it.

Think of it like a death race just to get to the booth where you buy the admissions ticket. 

But here’s the thing… these costs are pretty normal for oil and gas operations too. It just IS really expensive to get steel to build pipelines and dig up dirt to build wells, regardless of whether you’re putting CO2 or natural gas in that infrastructure. 😕

The difference is that carbon storage companies don’t have NEARLY as much funding available as oil and gas companies. They’re less able to bear these costs because…

  1. Carbon storage projects have high interest rates ( up to 15%) on loans. I wasn’t able to find typical interest rates for the oil and gas drilling. But for the solar projects in comparison, interest rates are around 5–8%. And loans are important because they don’t have any restrictions — companies don’t have to give up equity (decision-making rights) or depend on one specific government for funding.
  2. Carbon storage projects cannot generate funds from the stock market. There are no public CCUS companies (public = listed on stock exchanges for anyone to invest in). Though, there are giant oil and gas companies with CCUS demo projects that are public. 
  3. Carbon storage projects have relied heavily on government grants historically. Many past projects have had the majority of their funding from government grants. This is typical for higher risk technologies in early development. But, government budgets change. And policies to support CCUS are virtually non-existent in the developing world. 🚫

Fancy words aside, CCUS companies currently get money like this:


It’s worth mentioning that though I don’t have data for all other types of CCUS efforts, they’re very likely to have their own financing challenges.

As ONE example, there are also funding issues with using plants to sequester CO2 (reforestation). It takes 1–3 years to grow seeds into seedlings that can be planted. Prices are always changing in that time and seedling nurseries don’t know how much revenues they’ll get, how much they can reinvest in growing facilities to reforest more trees, etc. Also, reforestation is often funded via donations, but donations might not cover the cost of reforestation over trees' entire lifetimes.

It’s a little bit like our economy supports cutting down tree branches with trillions of dollars while it supports branch restoration with some morally-pretentious high-fives… hypothetically speaking, of course 😬


This is a huge startup barrier. And economies of scale are strictly a pipe dream. LITERALLY… the Alberta government made news in the industry when it said that it would build a CO2 pipeline at scale to unlock economies of scale (pg. 26)

🔑: CCUS is hard to pay for because it has high costs to build infrastructure, but few reliable sources of $$$.
P.S. Almost done with the negative problems! Just one last part and I’ll talk about more positive solutions!

Problem 1D: Government policies for CCUS are… non-existent 😮

Remember how I just said above that it takes 5 years to negotiate carbon capture permits with government regulators? That’s just ONE symptom of the larger issue: governments aren’t ready to regulate CCUS.

It doesn’t matter which part of CCUS you look at, you’ll find government policy issues EVERYwhere:

  1. There are FIVE countries around the world with CCUS-specific regulations. Yes, FIVE 😶 

2. It isn’t clear which part of the government deals with CCUS. For example, 14 state government agencies + 7 local government agencies + tribal government agencies may be involved in approving permits for carbon storage sites in California (pg. 117

I know it sounds boring, but imagine having to play hot potato with thousands of documents and dozens of colleagues just to get PERMISSION to work! 😱

3. Safety standards for CCUS technologies may take years to update. For example, Canada updates its National Building Code once every 5 years

Why do boring building codes matter? They determine material safety standards for anything in a building. Including materials that could be created out of CO2 as a new form of utilisation. But if the building code says you can’t use CO2 to create a brick, for one, there goes your solution.

4. Government policies make the future very uncertain for the CCUS industry. For instance, take carbon storage. Carbon storage companies can face fines in case CO2 leaks (from underground back to the atmosphere), but some countries don’t define how long they’re responsible for this. 

Would you want to build a project when you could face millions of dollars in fines at any time in the future, even if you shut down CO2 storage at a site 100 years ago??? 😕 

It’s like a ghost haunting you…


5. There are limited regulations to monitor whether carbon capture is done well. What do I mean by well? Well, it’s hard to know how much CO2 is captured and how long it stays captured. 

In regions like California, regulators just estimate how much CO2 a forest would capture based on its region, though this can be off by millions of tonnes of CO2! 😮

Now, I know what you’re thinking… who cares about the paperwork? 

But this actually matters a lot. The amount of CO2 captured is the entire basis of how much people get paid, how much people can keep emitting, and so on. This is the ONE number that can’t go wrong… and it does. 


And let’s say people perfectly measure the tonnes of CO2 captured. Most carbon capture happens via forests. Forests have been burning down more and more recently. In a single wildfire, millions of tonnes of CO2 can be released back into the atmosphere! Or issues with pests. Or issues with logging. 

The point is, there are a lot of ways for CO2 capture to be impermanent and just a few ways for it work out ideally. Yet, companies paying for ‘carbon offsets’ pay for the ideal scenarios because that’s what government regulations are based on. No wonder they don’t trust CCUS investments!

Going back to the branch, it’s not just that companies aren’t funding branch repair. Companies aren’t funding branch repair WHILE the branch is being cut down faster than ever 😱

WOW… those are a lot of issues! You’re probably thinking, “NO WAY this technology will ever get anywhere!” 😵 Sorry for the negativity dump! But here’s the opposite positivity dump…

Section 2: Giant Heap of Existing Solutions 😁

I’ll now explain current efforts to improve carbon capture and stop cutting down our metaphorical branch!

Here, I’m going to group solutions into three general categories:

  • CCUS ‘Hubs’ — meaning lots of CCUS infrastructure in one place
  • Government Policy—especially regarding funding and regulations
  • Very complicated research — it’s… complicated 😜

No worries if you forget some of the problems above! I’ll point out how these solutions fix them.

Existing Solution 2A: Organise CCUS infrastructure in one place

So here’s the issue for the FOURTH time… we only have 26 commercial CCUS locations in the world in 2020. 😁 See if you can notice a pattern about them:

(Source: CO2RE)

All operational CCUS facilities are located in different places. Even the dots that seem close together (ex: the cluster in the US) are located in different states, cities, etc. 

This means that most companies had to build their CCUS plants entirely from scratch. Ie. build pipes for transporting CO2, dig wells for injecting CO2, build units for capturing CO2 and so on. On top of that, they had to find their own ways of recruiting highly-specialised employees, getting access to highly-specialised equipment, getting funding for highly-specialised purposes, and… you get the idea. 😫

Companies trying to build CCUS plants often can’t rely on existing infrastructure. When they do, it’s because companies might set up one-on-one partnerships. Ex. “You capture the CO2, I’ll inject it underground, and we’ll split the cost of transporting it.” But this is risky — if one company fails, all others fail. 😢

The current CCUS industry with its limited locations and building-from-scratch is like the Internet industry before the 2000s. Each company would have to buy expensive equipment like servers, hire specialised talent like developers, and so on. This meant it cost millions to start an Internet company back then!

(Data Source: PhD Ventures Inc, 2018)

Of course, these days, no ecommerce company is building equipment like servers by itself. Some quaint, tiny company takes care of servers, another takes care of building the website, another takes care of customer support, and so on. By having each company focus on just one piece of infrastructure at scale, costs fell by 1000x! 🎉 Now, anyone with wifi can go on a crowdfunding platform and start an ecommerce business.

This is what the CCUS industry is hoping to replicate: increasing economies of scale and splitting up the risk of projects. They do this by having multiple companies in one ‘CCUS hub’. 

For example, take the Porthos project in development in the Netherlands. It aims to develop carbon capture, transportation, and storage infrastructure at the Port of Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe. Then, thousands of shipping companies could pay for carbon offsets for their operations, but not need to build the infrastructure to do it from scratch! 💪

Still, there are two big limitations here:

  1. These CCUS hubs will take years to build. At least until 2024 for Porthos.
  2. Though one organisation doesn’t have to pay for all phases of a CCUS hub (capture, transportation, and storage), each one STILL has to pay tens of millions of dollars. And so far, it’s governments who take the bill. 
🔑: Usually, only governments pay the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars needed for CCUS hubs.

Think of it like us getting crews of branch-fixers all in one place. We just need to better finance their expeditions. 😕

(Source: / PBS)

Existing Solution 2B: The most boring party topic: policy reform 😱

Do you remember my GIANT list of government issues in part 1? 😁Unfortunately, I also have to do a matching GIANT list of existing solutions…

1. The biggest issue: CCUS isn’t profitable due to low revenue. The solution is simple: raise the price of CO2. So how’s that going?

Easy answer: not so great. Only 22% of global CO2 emissions have ANY carbon prices currently. Why?

I’m no political expert, so a quick Google Search will get you more informed perspectives. But I do know this — the more people you force to pay, the less likely the regulation is to pass 😁

(Source: / memecandy)

BUT, there are a few innovative carbon pricing ideas out there! For one, take the US 45Q tax credit. Instead of imposing a carbon tax or a carbon permit on all companies / consumers, it offers a tax reduction to those that DO go out of their way to reduce emissions. Ie. Instead of trying to get the laggards (massive industries) to change, you just get support to the innovators (CCUS startups) first. Get what you can when you can ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Another approach to force fewer people to pay is for cities to create their own carbon pricing. Then, fewer total residents/companies will be affected. But cities make up 75% of greenhouse gas emissions, so the carbon pricing still affects the majority of CO2 production. Examples of cities that have done this include Quebec, Shanghai, and Tokyo.

It’s like we stop cutting the weakest parts of the tree branch because it’s more feasible than changing our branch-cutting ways on the whole.

2. Remember the hot potato game of which government agency should regulate carbon storage projects?

Yeah, it still has no solution 😁 But researchers proposed an innovative, new idea! 

Have one agency instead of 21…

(Source: Dazed Digital)

But to their credit, the researchers did propose a low-friction way of deploying this! Basically, create a liaison agency that coordinates between CCUS plant developers and all the other government agencies. Ie. Shift the burden of figuring it out to that middleman… middleagency? 

3. For products created with CO2 (carbon utilisation), there are a LOT of issues with financing, getting regulatory approval to sell products, etc. BUT, it doesn’t matter if you fix all problems with making a CO2-based product if no one wants to buy it. 😭

That’s why governments are creating public procurement guidelines and some companies are creating future purchase agreements to buy CO2-based products when they’re ready. Still, the government guidelines are mostly optional + small-scale (ex: at municipal levels). And companies with future purchase agreements are the exception, not the norm.

It’s like we’re putting up optional guidance signs on the branch: 

4. Remember how carbon storage companies have a lot of uncertainty because they could potentially face fines forever? As if they had ghosts haunting them? 


So the Australians came up with an innovative, new solution to this problem… 

Don’t fine companies for all eternity! 😁

(Source: / Ace Ventura)

Specifically, storage companies transfer responsibility for cleaning up future CO2 leaks to the government — 15 years after a site closes. This is because the risk of CO2 leaking is greatest during operation and immediately declines after the site is closed (pg. 20).

Now, the Europeans and Albertans have replicated the laws in Australia. Good on them! But that’s enough about governments… and on to the research!

Existing Solution C: Jumble of complex CO2 utilisation research 😮

Buckle in… this is going to be a wild ride (but complex research is the last part of the existing solutions!) Almost there! 

Carbon utilisation is by far the most active area for commercial CCUS research. Here are four popular topics right now:

1. CO2-based concrete products are ALMOST a commercial success. These products inject CO2 into concrete (where it reacts with elements like Calcium to create rocks). Or, they might use CO2 to coat around the concrete with the same Calcium reaction. In either case, the good thing about CO2 → rocks is that rocks tend to stay out of the atmosphere 😁

On top of that, using CO2 in concrete materials can make it stronger and some companies claim it’s cheaper too! 

Here's a demo by one company in the space!

I know what you’re thinking… so what’s the catch? 😕 

Here are a few issues with CO2-based concrete materials:

  • High standards— concrete is used in buildings, bridges, and beyond. Companies need to pass REALLY stringent safety standards to sell a new concrete mix. Multiple experts have told me about tests that take months, especially for durability testing. And even after a new concrete is certified, industry contracts may still bar CO2-based concrete.
  • Regulations, regulations, regulations 😫— because of the high-safety applications for concrete, there are slow-to-change regulations on what materials concrete can use. This makes it hard to change concrete production in general. Ex: even without CO2, you could make concrete more sustainable with more limestone and less cement (both are just ‘ingredients’). But this new technique is still illegal in many countries.
  • And even after all the red tape, new concrete factories cost billions of dollars to build. 😶 Even a single ‘green kiln’ (modern + sustainable factory equipment to reduce emissions) costs $100 million!
🔑: CO2-based concrete can store CO2 as rocks for hundreds of years. But, it’s the new kid in a heavily-regulated town full of bouncers :/

2. Using CO2 to make fuels is at its pilot stage. The way it works is actually standard high school chemistry (horrific flashback warning 😱).

Fuels are hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are called hydrocarbons because they have hydrogen and carbon :-)


CO2 has carbon, but not hydrogen. So if you add hydrogen to CO2, then you can get hydrocarbons (fuels). 

Theoretically simple, right? And fuels don’t have to last for centuries (unlike CO2-based concretes) so testing and safety regulations can be looser.

But again you wonder, “What’s the catch???” 😕

  • The problem is that it takes a lot of energy to get hydrogen to make fuels. You usually have to split big molecules (like water or natural gas) into smaller hydrogen atoms using lots of electricity.
  • Also, building new fuel refineries costs billions of dollars, just like concrete factories. 
  • But the biggest issue is that fuels release CO2 back into the atmosphere when they’re burned. We just don’t know how much yet, since the work in the industry is only at a pilot stage.
🔑: CO2-based fuels will create fewer emissions than fossil fuels, but will never be ‘carbon-negative’. 

It’s kind of like you’re trying to help the tree branch by dulling the blades of the saw. But you’re not really stopping the crazy humans sawing away faster and faster each year 🤔

3. CO2 to grow food is at the very early pilot stage

Now, I know what you’re thinking… “Uhhhh, hello? What about plants???” 

(Source: / The Disaster Artist)

Yes, using CO2 to grow plants gets us food. 🌴 But plants use a lot of land, use a lot of water, grow slowly, and leave non-edible materials besides food. We want: “CO2 in, wait one week maximum, and get ONE food product as output.” I actually only know of three companies working on this.

They work by feeding CO2 to either A) micro-organisms in bioreactors or B) aquatic organisms like kelp/algae (little land or freshwater needed)! The food these approaches generate range from fishmeal (food for seafood 😁), human protein-alternatives, or algae-based products.

I wish I could tell you what the upsides/downsides of this technology are, but it’s just SO early stage that there isn’t enough research about it out there. 😕This is actually part of a big list of CCUS technologies where SO much more REPLICABLE research is needed…

🔑: There isn’t enough research to tell if CO2 utilisation for food production is feasible. Other big words with little research: biochar, mangroves, enhanced weathering, and ocean-based carbon dioxide removal (details)

Existing Solution D: Jumble of complex monitoring research 😮

Last, last existing solution! I promise 😁

This one’s all about monitoring. And by monitoring, I mean measuring how you do X instead of just doing X. Monitoring is especially important for verifying CO2 is captured and stored. 

And it’s hardest when this capture and storage happens over a large geographic area. (Ex: It’s hard to monitor a forest capturing CO2 vs. a capture unit at a power plant.) The reason for this is intuitive: it’s hard to install a sensor on every tree in a forest to measure how much CO2 it captures. Versus installing one sensor on a carbon capture unit in a factory smokestack.

Here are two approaches to fix this issue:

1. Remote forest monitoring is unlocking more possibilities than ever where it works! Basically, remote monitoring skips installing local sensors or having local workers check in on the health of individual trees. Instead, it uses satellite imaging data to monitor CO2 capture, forest growth, forest canopy density, and so on.

Is this not the coolest thing you’ve ever seen??? 😎

But you guessed it! There’s a catch… 

Remote monitoring data isn’t available in many parts of the world. Especially for datatypes like LiDAR that are expensive to collect— in fact, the largest forestry databases don’t have ANY LiDAR data on Brazil: home to the largest forest on Earth. 😕

But that’s not all…

Carbon capture monitoring processes have to be approved by either governments or ‘carbon offset market registries’. (People who let companies capture X tonnes of CO2 for $Y). BUT, carbon registries are global and only approve monitoring processes that work for ALL types of forest (

SO 🧠

  • If there’s no data for a certain forest type in a certain location, you can’t create remote monitoring techniques for that forest.
  • If a technique doesn’t work for all forests, that technique won’t be accepted by formal carbon registries. 
  • If that technique won’t be part of registries, these monitoring techniques have much lower adoption. 

Still, maybe individual governments might decide to use these techniques via their own national laws? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

🔑: To scale, monitoring techniques must be standardised. To be standardised, they must work everywhere. A single inconvenient geographic location can mess that up. 

It’s like we have an amazing guard dog that could alert us to any branch-sawing baddies! But we can’t use it because we don’t know if it can smell that one bit of bark on the end of the branch 😭

Not the best guard dog 😂

2. Carbon storage monitoring is reducing manual tests that take a long time to run. It looks at a few key datapoints:

  • Data about the underground well. For example, the temperature or pressure at the bottom of the well.
  • Data about the CO2 in the underground well. Like monitoring if any CO2 is escaping from cracks in underground rock.

Both these types of data are hard to collect. To measure data at the bottom of a well, you have to put sensors hundreds of metres underground. As you can imagine, this is costly and hard to maintain. 😕 And monitoring CO2 already stored underground means we need to see through underground rock.

How do you see through rock? You don’t… you listen! Basically, you create acoustic vibrations that go through underground rock. These are created by slamming a big ram into the ground a bunch of times 😁 

I know… it sounds like a fun job!


But in reality, it’s pretty boring. Just a bunch of paperwork to get permission to buy expensive equipment. 😭 That’s why researchers are working on simplifying this process a lot! One of the biggest improvements is just permanently putting acoustic vibration-sensors underground. That way, they can be reused instead of getting a big smashy ram to slam the ground every time you want to run a test 😂

Here’s a video with helpful visuals:

Researchers claim approaches like these can be up to 75% cheaper than traditional carbon storage monitoring! Still, this doesn’t address the largest costs of carbon storage (insurance costs and safety deposits).

Good job! You made it! 😌 I’ll stop with the existing solutions here. (Though you KNOW there are more out there that I’m cutting A) for time and B) because they involve intolerable levels of chemistry 😂)

Section 3: Some Neglected Opportunities 😍

This section is basically me wrapping up by shooting out ENTIRELY-UNTESTED ideas for future problem-solvers who want to get involved with CCUS 😉😀

The goal here is mainly to make it easier to start more CCUS projects. I’ll talk about how to do that with better financing, regulations, and data.

Opportunity A: Better Government Funding

Let’s start with a no-brainer solution: more government money 😁 Ie. Higher carbon prices for companies. 

But wait! There’s more…

Why not make carbon pricing smarter? Instead of just asking the government to spend more money, what are the right places for the government to spend more money? That will incentivise more companies to work on the RIGHT areas of carbon capture.

This is like making it rain in every direction vs. signing a targeted check 😁

Before vs. After (Left: / memecandy. Right: / theprofit)

Here are some ideas:

1. Increased carbon pricing for lower technology readiness levels (TRL). TRLs are just a scale of how ‘ready’ a technology is to be commercialised. The highest level is 10 (the technology is a commercial success) and the lowest level is 1 (you just have the first research papers on the technology).

But why pay more for less ready technology (lower TRLs)? Because ready-to-commercialise industries can usually get private funding easily. So instead, the government usually helps those who need it most. It can have the greatest impact on the least ready technology.  

2. Increased carbon pricing for more permanent capture options. Right now, almost all governments around the world will price carbon the same whether it’s sucked up by a tree or pumped underground or injected into concrete. 

But this doesn’t make sense. Carbon sucked up by trees will be released back into the atmosphere in decades. Centuries for concrete injection. And millennia for geologic sequestration. (Table 1) Why pay the same price for solutions that are 100x less permanent? 😕

Would you pay a plumber full price if your sink broke again in 2 weeks? 

3. Increased pricing for atmospheric CO2. That is, the 0.04% of air that is CO2 vs. the 10+% of a factory smokestack’s emissions that is CO2. The lower concentration of the former makes it much more expensive, which is why increased pricing is needed. 

Also, collecting CO2 already in the atmosphere is like ✨ fixing past emissions ✨— something no other green technology can do. So we should incentivise more companies to work on this specialty. Still, there are lots of troublesome nuances with this.

🔑: Pay more for past CO2 emissions removed from the atmosphere, technologies that need the help, and longer-term solutions.

This is like paying more for super-fantabulous wood glue that can fix centuries of people sawing away at the branch. Right now, we’re paying the same price for the glue and a pinch of sawdust to fill one crack. 😕

Opportunity B: Better Government Permitting

It really pays to be visual here. So here are the existing permitting processes for carbon storage projects.

Option A
Option B (Source: Freepik / Tartila)

Not so great. The proposed existing solution is to put in a middle agency as a liaison between CCUS companies and the mess in Option A. Like this:

As long as the client is happy… 😶

This is the government equivalent of sweeping the dirt under the rug before mom arrives. 😂 So I propose an alternative solution:

  • Have standardised risk levels for different CCUS projects. Ie. If one carbon capture site has risks factors A, B, and C then it gets risk class 1. And the CCUS company can get a predefined permit for that risk level. 
  • Every project has a basic risk level (ex: level 1). Then, any other risks will be evaluated on a project-by-project basis. 

The benefits of this are that CCUS companies better know which permits they might need and can plan accordingly. And, government agencies know who gets involved on what at each risk level. 

Each CCUS company has its own path to travel. Just like an airport counter:

If you think about it, managing who saves which part of the branch really is like directing air traffic going every which way 😅

Opportunity C: Unlocking Flexible Financing

Quick reminder: current financing for CCUS projects is mainly government grants or oil and gas money. Both of those have downsides. Debt would be better, though it has high interest rates. And there aren’t any current solutions to that problem 😱

That’s why I took inspiration from innovations in green finance for other clean technologies. Here are some ‘green finance principles’ that might help: 

1. Make debt less risky to lower interest rates. 

I know what you’re thinking… “Easier said than done!” 😁

But hear me out. Many of the risks that raise interest rates for CCUS projects are region-specific (Table 1). For example, political risk, social acceptance, storage liability risk, legal risk, etc. 

So if you give a loan to a CCUS company in one location, any number of things could go wrong at that location. This makes debt interest higher. 

So that got me thinking: “What if we could give loans to CCUS companies across MANY locations?” 🌎 That would make sure that all the companies don’t suffer from the same region-specific risks. So if one CCUS company goes bankrupt because of poor policies in a country, all others won’t follow suit the next morning. 

It’s exactly like social distancing to reduce risk 😂

(Source: / dannynewtv)

On top of this, banks lending money can start with smaller loans that lead to cost savings and prove creditworthiness. Ex: Instead of funding the construction of a whole carbon storage site, you fund the new and improved monitoring technologies in Section 2 and get 75% cost savings for the project. If the storage company pays you back, you’re more willing to lend them more money in the future. And they’re more profitable from the cost savings! 🤑

🔑: To lower interest rates, lower risk. To lower risk, lend in different regions and start with microloans for cost-saving technologies.

If that’s too much financial mumbo jumbo, it’s like video game level ups. First, we give individuals tools so they can collect more resources. Then, we clone those individuals to make villages and get even more resources! 💪

2. Create long-term revenue for CCUS companies to reduce uncertainty. Again, think about risks like political change for CCUS companies. they can’t make great long-term decisions. 😕

  • Every few years, an incoming government administration could decide to abolish a region’s carbon pricing.
  • Regions with carbon permits always have variable carbon pricing (variable revenue for CCUS companies) anyway. 
  • Nature-based solutions (ex: reforestation) involve seasonal demand outside the tropics. Ex: A nursery growing trees for reforestation will only get customers during the spring. So it’s hard to make long-term plans over years. 

These problems already exist for most agricultural products. Trees are trees, whether you grow them for carbon offsets or farms. Predicting how much money you’ll get, when, and from where is like playing whack-a-mole 😭


Luckily, because these problems already exist in the agricultural industry, people have also already thought of solutions:

One option is to combine individual short-term contracts into one long-term contract. 🤔 Currently, many companies will individually buy carbon offsets or trees for reforestation. But they rarely support one CCUS company with these purchases over years.

So, you get all the companies to send the money to an intermediary. And the intermediary uses the money to create one long-term contract. Then, the intermediary will pay the CCUS company and send the carbon offsets/trees back to individual companies.

Too many boring words? 😁 Here’s a picture:

Another way to create similar long-term contracts would be to have a ‘futures’ market for commodities like reforest-able tree seedlings 😁 A ‘futures’ market just means that people buy contracts that say: “A producer will deliver the goods to you in a month.” Versus a ‘spot’ market where people buy the goods on the spot.

Futures markets have been created for carbon permits and carbon offsets but not for tree seedlings that can be planted during reforestation. 

🔑: More future revenue guarantees = more certainty = more long-term investment

It’s like funding tree branch protection squads for a decade vs. a year. They can launch more state-of-the-art branch-protection-systems in a decade!

3. Break down CCUS infrastructure financing into phases. This is standard with infrastructure construction. Instead of loaning a CCUS company tens of millions of dollars, you give the money in parts based on the company’s progress. (Ex: finishing initial design plans, acquiring permits, etc.) 

It’s like every growth milestone unlocks more money.

(Source: / xponentialgrowth)

On top of this, companies can have different funders for different phases of a CCUS project. This splits up the risk between funders and leads to lower interest rates.

For example, a bank might finance give a CCUS company a loan to build a pipeline. After it’s built, ‘institutional’ investors (big sources of money like a pension fund) may pay back the bank loan on behalf of the company. In exchange, they get equity (a share of profits). 

So, the bank takes the risk of not getting their money back in case construction fails. And the institutional investors take the risk of not getting their money back in case the CCUS company’s operations aren’t profitable. But neither takes on both risks, so both offer lower interest rates 🧠

🔑: Less money upfront + more funders = less risk = lower interest rates

It’s like shooting a massive cannon ball of money at the problem vs. shooting dollar bills in every which direction 😁

(Left:, Right:
Phew… all done with the money! Here’s one last creative idea in case all that bored you 😅

Opportunity D: Accessibil-ify data for CCUS companies 😉

Specifically, there are two metrics that are important, but hard to access: where to locate your CCUS site and how to monitor carbon capture.

1. Where you locate your site is important because it determines everything from government support to legal requirements to partnership opportunities to energy costs and more… 😮 And finding good locations amidst all these metrics is a long, complicated process. For carbon storage projects, it can take years just to screen lots of sites and then select one final location!

I think many parts of this process can be open-sourced… if there were some incentive for people to do this work for free. For example, searching for data sources in regions of interest can be split up among many people. Or, researching regional CCUS policies / partnership opportunities can be split up among many people. But what about the doing work for free part? 🤔

🔑: Open-source CCUS data isn’t scalable due to limited incentives to contribute.

Why not use history’s favourite incentivisation strategy: sacrifice young people and students!?!? ✨ 

(Source: / foilarmsandhog)

Companies in carbon capture have a lot of media attention right now. They could easily create publicity for hackathons for geological and engineering students. Especially in partnership with each other. Prompts could be to identify CCUS site locations / market demand for different CCUS approaches. 

Yes, student recommendations aren’t perfect. But each one can uncover little bits of the puzzle that save time later. Incentives for students could be prizes and adding work experience to their portfolio doing the exact same grunt-work that junior hires would do. Companies could even recruit from that pool of students! 🎉

It’s like multiple people are filling in pieces of the map. 

2. Remote carbon capture monitoring technologies face an uphill battle: they need to work EVERYwhere to be standardised. 😩 That’s bound to cause MANY different problems with getting ALL the data needed to test monitoring approaches everywhere. Two approaches currently try to fix these data gaps:

  • Open-source data usually focuses on easy-to-monitor locations, so it can’t address the most extreme data gaps (ex: in remote parts of developing countries). 
  • Commercial data gathering services are expensive, so they only monitor very specific targets. For example, getting LiDAR data for a single pipeline route. 

So a company that is making better carbon capture monitoring will have to coordinate between these sources, as well as governments and researchers. They have to do a lot of heavy digging to collect pieces of the puzzle so they can eventually make the solution.

🔑: We need both open-source and commercial data to standardise monitoring. But it’s hard for companies to coordinate between all these sources.

It makes more sense for carbon capture monitoring companies to develop their technology, while someone else specialises in data acquisition. They could be paid via a bounty. 🤑

Currently, companies say: “We’ll give you $X thousand to map this specific region.” Instead, a company could specify the whole package of data they need. Some of this data could be available on open-source platforms. Other parts might need to be collected for the first time with commercial platforms. But the company offloads data acquisition to someone else so they can do their main job. 

But let’s say a monitoring company needs 10 pieces of data, but almost all of them need to be commercially collected. And the bounty prize doesn’t justify someone else hiring commercial companies to collect the data. The bounty could be increased over time to incentivise more people to try and find the data. Or, they might get partial rewards for collecting parts of the data that are available. 

Again, these are all opportunities that anyone (YOU) could take on RIGHT NOW! They’ve never been done before, but I hope sharing them will get more heads thinking. Not in imaginary-land, but based on the problems and existing solutions I outlined here 😉

And maybe, just maybe… 

We can #SaveTheBranchTogether and #AvoidFallingIntoAnExpansiveVoidOf NothingnessPermeatedByEverRecedingBlotchesOfLight 😂


After the past 50 minutes of CCUS and existential branches and hot potato permitting processes, you’re free! 😤

You’ve got to admit though, this was more engaging than the 400-page reports that the CCUS industry usually puts out 😂

As a last gift, I’ll leave you with this concise summary list. And my Linkedin profile if you want me to personally answer any questions you have 😉

Key Takeaways:

  • Carbon capture is the ONLY technology that can remove past CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.
  • Under 0.5% of all green technology investment goes to CCUS annually.
  • The purely FINANCIAL costs and benefits of CCUS don’t consider its FULL costs and benefits.
  • Half of carbon pricing is under $10/tonne. And only 22% of the world’s CO2 has any carbon pricing.
  • We need CO2 utilisation to be 1000x larger to offset the CO2 we emit.
  • Starting a CCUS plant is harder than running it. Mostly because of high costs and hard regulations. 
  • There are FIVE countries around the world with CCUS-specific regulation. And lots of obvious mistakes— ex: fining companies for all of eternity.
  • Locating more CCUS companies in one hub will bring economies of scale.
  • Even profitable CCUS technologies like CO2 to concrete can’t scale. Testing standards, industry incumbents, and high capital costs get in the way.
  • CO2-based fuels will create fewer emissions than fossil fuels, but will never be ‘carbon-negative’.
  • There are a LOT of research gaps with some CCUS approaches: biochar, enhanced weathering, food production, and ocean-based carbon dioxide removal.
  • To scale, monitoring techniques must be standardised. To be standardised, they must work everywhere.
  • Carbon pricing can be targeted more towards the RIGHT technologies.
  • Risk evaluation for CCUS project permitting could be much faster if standardised. Currently, we have project-by-project negotiations.
  • Debt for CCUS projects can be derisked via smaller loans across many geographies. 
  • Short-term contracts for CCUS industries prevent them from making long-term investments. 
  • Open-source CCUS data is limited since there aren’t any incentives to contribute. But non-monetary incentives can easily be created (ex: hackathons, portfolio building, employee recruitment).

🙏 THANK YOU to 🙏

  • Jesse Pound for being my fellow solutioneer through every early morning braindump of my CCUS thoughts 😂 And for supporting me through this entire journey, even when you didn’t have anything left to give.
  • Betty Cremmins from WEFORUM for sharing resources on reforestation that I NEVER would have found on my own. 🤓 And for revising this whole thing in such detail!
  • Professor Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen for being the first person who was willing to spare time to help some random high school student 😄 And for all the ALL CAPS FEEDBACK after that 😉
  • Eve Tamme from the Global CCS Institute for your kindness in giving back to students, for explaining the priorities of environmental policymakers, and for getting me hooked on learning to negotiate 😅
  • Dr. Matthew Bright from the Global CCS Institute for telling me about your on-the-ground lessons with outreach and communications in the CCUS industry and for letting me in on your experimental ideas 😉
  • Dr. Chistopher Consoli from the Global CCS Institute for taking the time to share your to-the-point lessons on carbon storage development! 💪
  • Dr. Eugene Holubnyak from Kansas Geological Survey for all your enthusiasm and encouragement for students! 🎉And for explaining the exact details of carbon storage permitting to me.
  • William Payne from Projeo Corp for taking me seriously and going out of your way to support students during the tough times of the pandemic 🙏 I appreciate your expertise on the ins and outs of geology in CCUS!
  • Tim Bushman from Carbon Direct for talking to me about the issues companies face in buying carbon offsets. 😩
  • Russell Dyk from Carbon Direct for listening to an unprepared high school student pitch financial derisking models 😁 And still taking it seriously and giving useful feedback! 
  • Dr. Joseph King from ARPA-E for sharing your innovative ideas in CO2 utilisation for concrete! 🤓 (And sharing it casually on the side amidst all your amazing career advice 😁)
  • Lee Levkowitz from BHP for talking to me about the issues with decarbonisation in the mining industry. 😮
  • Devin Patten from Solidia Technologies for walking me through the YEARS of history at Solidia and what exciting milestones are next 😉
  • Dr. Paul Majzstrik from Solidia Technologies for emailing me about the barriers holding back sustainable concrete.
  • Dr. Hai Yu from CSIRO for your pages and pages of clarifications in helping me understand the sorbent research process! 💪
  • Dr. Ronald Chance from Global Thermostat for your pages and pages of reality-checks about what is and isn’t possible in the CCUS industry. 🤔 It takes a lot of honesty to say the things most people will overlook!
  • David Bochner from Pachama for emailing me about the cutting edge issues in the next generation of remote reforestation monitoring 🧠
  • Eric Dunford from CarbonCure for emailing me resources about the state of policy issues in the sustainable concrete industry
  • Dr. Truong Nguyen from Cemvita Factories for emailing me about what’s holding back bio-based R&D in CCUS 🧬
  • Dr. Nymul Khan from Cemvita Factories for emailing me about the economics behind bio-based research in CCUS 💰
  • Dr. Jonathan Ennis-King from CSIRO for emailing me about the cutting-edge research with geologic modelling in carbon storage 😮
  • Dr. Paul Feron from CSIRO for emailing me about the priorities in setting standards for the CCUS industry! 
  • Dr. Linda Broadhurst from CSIRO for your amazing research on barriers in scaling up reforestation! And for clarifying its details with me 🙂
  • Alyssa Barrett from Global Forest Watch for emailing me about your incredible approaches to set your organisation’s goals 😤
  • Dr. James Hall from Carbon Clean for emailing me about your unique work to make carbon capture easier to deploy.
  • Dr. Omid Ghaffari from Svante for messaging me about the areas for improvement to better support R&D in CCUS!
  • Professor Gregory Nemet from the University of Wisconsin-Madison for emailing me suggestions on issues with CCUS public policies.
  • Nan Ransohoff from Stripe Climate for sharing the amazing work at Stripe Demo Day! Stripe is definitely a jewel amidst too many coals in CCUS ✨

This work wouldn’t have been possible without these people helping me out for no reason other than the kindness of their hearts ❤️