Skip to content
Low carbon energy programme

The potential and limitations of using carbon dioxide

© mikedabell

This policy briefing examines the science of using captured carbon dioxide as a feedstock for a variety of applications such as manufacturing fuels, chemicals and materials. The interest in using this carbon dioxide has been raised due to the economics of large scale carbon capture and storage.

The case for using carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide emissions are at the heart of the decarbonisation challenge, accounting for 81% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. Exploiting the widespread availability of carbon dioxide could reduce UK dependence on imported hydrocarbons, increase the UK’s security of supply in key chemicals and materials and drive growing commercial opportunities in supply of carbon dioxide based products.

Current and future uses of carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide has been used in industrial processes for over a hundred years. Today, carbon dioxide is often used directly; for example, in enhanced oil recovery, food and carbonated drinks. However, research is exploring new chemical and biological processes to use carbon dioxide. 

Flow chart showing carbon dioxide policies

Futures uses of carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide could provide an alternative source of fuels and chemicals, partially displacing fossil fuels in sectors that are more difficult to decarbonise. For example, new low carbon fuels could be used as a transition technology in place of traditional fuels in sectors such as aviation, marine and road haulage.

Major scientific challenges of using carbon dioxide

Key challenges to invent, scale, commercialise and industrially deploy processes that use carbon dioxide include improving the fundamental understanding of catalysis; developing sources of competitively priced low carbon energy; and the need to produce cheap green hydrogen at scale.

Developing the commercial potential for using carbon dioxide

Decarbonisation is a key challenge for process industries such as cement, steel and chemical plants. Using carbon dioxide is now being seriously considered as a commercial proposition to reduce the carbon footprint of these sectors. A number of companies are already exploring these areas and it is likely that research currently underway will lead to further optimisation and commercialisation of new chemical and biological routes to transforming carbon dioxide in greater volume, presenting an opportunity for the UK to develop leadership in sustainable manufacturing. 

This policy briefing is the first project of the Royal Society’s low carbon energy programme.