Recently, we reported on the cutting-edge endeavors to capture carbon dioxide from the air before it can contribute to the climate crisis. But what to do with all those reclaimed gases? This week, we take a look at the companies pioneering the use of CO2 as a manufacturing material.
CO2 is the main culprit in global warming, in part because it is virtually impossible to produce almost any product without releasing carbon dioxide. But what if products could be created from CO2 instead of releasing it?
We already use CO2 to carbonate our drinks, fertilize our tomatoes, and make our cosmetics. But the burgeoning carbontech industry is pushing into new realms every year, as cutting-edge companies capture carbon dioxide before it escapes into the atmosphere and use it to manufacture everything from carpet to diamonds. Here are six surprising products being made from carbon waste.
Finnish visionary Pasi Vainikka’s project sounds like science-fiction. “We make food from air!” he says. “We don’t need farming land, don’t need to cut down forests, and hardly even need water.” His food-tech startup Solar Foods near Helsinki produces protein powder from microbes he and his co-founders source from soils and marine ecosystems in the Finnish wilderness. In a fermenter not unlike the ones used in breweries, the company then uses water, hydrogen, vitamins and CO2 extracted from the atmosphere to grow the microbes into Solein, a yellowish protein that can be dried and consumed in a shake, as flour, or in pill form.
If the concept seems otherworldly, that’s because it is: Solar Foods is collaborating with the European Space Agency to develop a food concept for a mission to Mars. But here on Earth, the protein powder could help in the fight against climate change. Agriculture is one of the world’s biggest emitters, responsible for 24 percent of greenhouse gases, which is why George Monbiot, the director of the documentary Apocalypse Cow, believes farm-free food could “create astonishing possibilities to save both people and planet… If it’s done right, it means cheap and abundant food for everyone.”
At first glance, the Interface carpet looks like any other: Gray, fibrous squares like you’ve walked across in innumerable airports and office buildings. But this gray fluff is a carbon sink. The “Climate Takeback” technology developed by the Atlanta-based company results in carbon-negative flooring. It’s created with latex made from CO2 captured from smokestack exhaust, using a mix of recycled vinyl and bio waste for the base, and salvaged nylon for the surface. Interface claims that carpeting a conference room with its product pulls the equivalent of 12 pounds of carbon from the atmosphere. “Stop seeing carbon as the enemy,” the company says, “and start using it as a resource, as a building block to engineer better products.”
According to Marcius Extavour, executive director of the non-profit Carbon XPrize, cement accounts for seven percent of global CO2 emissions. The Canadian company CarbonCure in Halifax, Nova Scotia, uses recycled liquified CO2, captured from factory exhaust, and injects it into fresh concrete during the mixing process. “Once injected, the CO2 undergoes a chemical reaction, converts into a mineral and becomes permanently embedded,” the CarbonCure engineers explain.
Not only does the process reduce emissions by five to eight percent compared with conventional mixes, it makes the concrete stronger. CarbonCure claims to have eliminated more than 120,000 tons of CO2 and just won the Carbon XPrize, a global competition that challenges participants to develop breakthrough technologies to convert carbon dioxide into usable products. It shares the award with CarbonBuilt, a Los Angeles company that uses core technology developed by the Institute for Carbon Management at UCLA to reduce CO2 in concrete by nearly 50 percent. “The world’s building stock is expected to double by 2060,” Extavour says about the decision, “so it’s vital that solutions like CarbonCure’s scale quickly.”
Mattresses, socks and bras
Fossil fuels — in the form of plastics — are in virtually every manufactured product, but captured carbon dioxide can be used as a building block for many of these instead. In cooperation with the Tech University Aachen (RTWH), the German company Covestro has successfully converted CO2 and other gas mixtures generated during steel production into polyols, an organic composite usually derived from nonrenewable resources. Covestro uses these polyols to create a carbon-based material called cardyon to manufacture foams for insulation, mattresses, vehicle interiors, door panels and car seat linings.
The material has been used to create the world’s first subfloor made from carbon dioxide at a recently opened hockey facility in Krefeld, Germany. Not far from there, in the city of Leverkusen, Covestro chemist Liv Adler shows off her orange socks made with the CO2-based thread. “It’s not just a climate gas, but a resource we can use,” she says. She coordinates Carbon4Pur, a EU initiative to turn industrial waste gases into valuable resources. Her socks aren’t ready for mass production yet, but a major pantyhouse manufacturer is already producing prototypes from the fiber, hoping to improve its elasticity and eventually integrate it into production.
Diamonds are not the planet’s best friend. Their mining requires a tremendous amount of resources, energy, land and pollution. But a diamond is essentially just crystalline carbon. This year, two companies have begun producing diamonds made from carbon captured from the air: Aether in the U.S., and Sky Diamond in the U.K. “Everything we need to create a sky diamond comes from the sky,” says Dale Vince, the owner of the world’s greenest soccer club. “The carbon is taken from the atmosphere, wind and sun provide all our energy, and the water we use is captured rain. The only thing we put back into the world is cleaner air than we took out.”
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Both companies use CO2 captured from the air and promise that their diamonds are physically and chemically “identical to mined diamonds, except they don’t come from deep inside the earth,” according to Aether. What usually takes millions or even billions of years is achieved over a few weeks by applying extremely high temperatures and pressure from renewable energy sources to CO2. Marketing his jewelry as “bling without a sting,” Aether CEO Ryan Shearman claims that a one-carat diamond removes about 20 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, which would offset more than the average American is responsible for in a year, though the claim is impossible to verify. “It fits perfectly with our message that living a green life isn’t about giving stuff up,” Vince says. “Whether it’s burgers, cars, soccer, or even diamonds, it’s about doing it in a different way.”
Just thinking about the climate crisis can make you reach for a stiff drink. A young New York startup offers the chance to do so emissions-free. The vodka from Air Company only has two ingredients: CO2 and water. Or, as the website puts it: only air, water and sun.
Typically, alcohol is distilled after fermenting fruit or grain. Producing a bottle of vodka made from wheat, for instance, emits about 13 pounds of climate gases that are generated in the growing, harvesting and transporting of the grains. Air Co.’s vodka, by comparison, eliminates as much CO2 as eight trees would, co-founder Gregory Constantine says. He refuses to spill the recipe for proprietary reasons, but the production process essentially uses solar energy to transform CO2 into pure ethanol, not unlike the way plants use photosynthesis to turn CO2 into food.
The patent has won awards from NASA and the United Nations. “Our vodka is even purer than conventional vodka because it has no contamination or byproducts from grains,” co-founder Stafford Sheehan explains. He first managed to transform CO2 into alcohol at Yale where he studied chemistry. So, instead of paying for carbon offsets to cancel out the emissions of your flight when you travel, you can simply down a couple of in-flight cocktails, right?
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Unfortunately, no. To offset a roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to New York, you would have to drink more than 4,000 bottles of carbon-negative vodka. And that’s why most of these products don’t use up enough CO2 to make a dent in the climate crisis. But new technology always starts small. The nonprofit think tank Carbon180 estimates the annual market potential for carbontech at more than $1 trillion in the U.S. and nearly $6 trillion worldwide. Just like carbon capture pioneer Klaus Lackner and other experts, they believe that fuel production will eventually make up the largest segment (85%) of the carbontech market, followed by building materials and plastics. “Carbontech provides a market value for waste carbon that would otherwise perpetuate climate change,” according to Carbon180 which finds the new products “more climate beneficial.”
Perhaps someday, every carpet, fizzy drink, diamond and truckload of cement will be produced from captured CO2. Being negative would finally be a positive thing.