What is carbon capture?

I find our planet to be entrancingly beautiful and inspiring. Steeped within the natural world as I was growing up, even while still young, I noticed changes each time that I passed a birthday. Why are there fewer dragonflies than I am used to seeing? Why is it 60 degrees on Christmas day? It really bothered me.

A bright red dragonfly with clear wings lands on a stick.

A 96 year old grandmother, not really familiar with climate change narratives, summarized this so well for me a few years ago as she gazed out the window…. She said: “What happened? Winter used to be winter, spring used to be spring, summer used to be summer, and fall used to be fall.”

There are many strategies that we can—and should—deploy to help address climate change. And we need as many effective strategies as possible right now—from emissions reductions to recycling. One strategy that is not as well understood is carbon capture and conversion*.

Carbon capture and conversion describes a process where carbon dioxide is “captured” out of the ambient air, a body of water, or from an industrial smokestack and then used as an ingredient to make products.

Many people may not realize that many products we use everyday are made with carbon, e.g. carbonated beverages, jet fuel, clothing, etc. Right now, most of this carbon comes from petroleum sources. If we could use captured carbon, instead of petroleum, to make products, it would reduce our dependence on oil and gas and provide a way to help pay for the cost of capturing carbon, by selling the products we can make with it.

Graphic describing the circular carbon economy. It begins with creating products harvested from captured CO2, selling those products for revenue, and then converting the products back to CO2 feedstock at their end of life.

In an ideal world, we would recycle or reuse products as much as possible, but sometimes that’s easier said than done. You can’t reuse a Covid test, for example. And some things will eventually become too worn out to be useful. 

A tattered and worn out pair of shoes.

Carbon dioxide can be used as a new ingredient in a wide range of products. Mineral-containing products such as concrete are capable of durably storing carbon. In other products, like synthetic aviation fuel, carbon dioxide is re-released back into the atmosphere as soon as the fuel is spent moving the plane across the sky. In this case, since the carbon dioxide is released again when burned, this can be thought of as circular carbon usage or “de-fossilizing” our economy. The carbon isn’t permanently removed from the atmosphere, but by using captured carbon instead of fossil carbon to power the plane, at least we move away from burning fossil fuels. 

In addition to concrete and jet fuel, there are actually many other products that are currently being created from captured carbon dioxide: diamonds, hand sanitizer, soap, yoga pants, crayons, vodka, etc.

Decorative collage containing a woman doing yoga, a bar of soap, hand sanitizer, a diamond, and crayons.

In addition to using captured carbon to make products, there is another common way to use captured CO2, namely, carbon capture and storage (CCS). In CCS, the captured carbon dioxide is compressed into a liquid and then stored in porous geologic reservoirs under the Earth’s surface.

Captured carbon can also be injected underground in oil wells in order to squeeze more oil out of the ground. This process is called enhanced oil recovery. Since this process actually results in additional CO2 being released into the atmosphere, this is not the most environmentally-friendly use for captured CO2—in fact it’s probably the worst.

We’ve talked about different engineered solutions to address the excess carbon dioxide on Earth. It’s important to remember that “nature-based solutions” are also part of the necessary toolkit in the fight against climate change. Plants and trees on the earth’s surface or in the oceans capture carbon dioxide. Nature-based solutions are pathways that try to protect existing forests or other areas that naturally store significant amounts of carbon dioxide, as well as create new areas for nature-based carbon storage.

The morning sun shines through a grove of trees onto some bright moss.

I hope I have clarified some of the carbon capture terms and concepts you may have heard about. Now that you know a little more about it, what do you think? Do you have questions or concerns? What role do you think carbon capture has in the fight against climate change?

If you would like to learn more about this carbon capture and conversion or about sustainability in general, the following list of resources and organizations you can get involved with may be helpful:


  • Global CO2 Initiative Student Association: U-M student organization for students of all backgrounds who are interested in carbon capture and conversion.
  • AirMiners: an online organization that gathers people who want to build something in carbon removal and brings them into community with others who can create with them.
  • Open Air Collective: a 100% volunteer-led, global network accelerating carbon removal advancement and evolution through member initiated missions.
  • Carbon180: a new breed of climate NGO dedicated to bringing together the people, resources, and vision to realize a carbon-removing world. 

MBGNA Exhibit

The Global CO2 Initiative is helping curate an exhibit at Matthaei Botanical Gardens: “Products from Pollution: Carbon Capture and Conversion. Adding value while fighting climate change.” The exhibit will run from March 2 to April 14 and will include samples of products made from captured carbon, explanations of different carbon capture processes, and two interactive components, including a video game: “CO2: Capture & Convert!

Additional Readings

*Carbon capture and conversion has historically also been known as carbon capture and utilization. However, in some cases, people have used the phrase carbon capture and utilization to also include things like enhanced oil recovery (EOR). At the Global CO2 Initiative, we are more interested in using captured carbon to make new products, or convert it to new goods. We would like to distinguish ourselves from those who would advocate for pumping more oil and gas out of the Earth. Hence, we have recently adopted the term “carbon capture and conversion” in place of “carbon capture and utilization.”