Carbon capture is not quite the planet-saving miracle touted by its advocates, many of whom have a stake in extractive fossil energy industries. However, captured and recycled carbon is making its way into some surprising new consumer products that reduce the need to mine and extract from the earth for coal, oil and natural gas. Brands can carve new pathways for expanding their sustainability profile by making choices that can help accelerate this trend.
What is wrong with recycled carbon?
The problem with the conventional approach to carbon capture is that it simply amounts to a global exercise in wheel-spinning that enables the pace of fossil energy extraction and usage to continue unabated.
Somewhat ironically, the primary use of captured carbon today is in oil fields, where it is used to enhance output from underproducing oil wells.
Fortunately, alternative uses are beginning to appear on the market. These alternatives could help accelerate global decarbonization, as long as they are not offset by business as usual in the fossil energy field.
Recycled carbon for the fashion industry
The carbon capture field scored a high fashion makeover in December, when the global retailer Inditex released a capsule collection of recycled carbon party dresses for its Zara stores.
The sleek, stylish line was made possible through a partnership with the firm LanzaTech, which has invented a bio-based carbon recycling method that deploys engineered microorganisms to digest airborne carbon from steel mill waste gas and other sources. The process yields Lanzanol, a proprietary brand of ethanol.
The rest was simple. Lanzanol underwent a basic petrochemical conversion into monotehylene glycol, which is the raw material for polyester yarn.
Recycled carbon for vodka
Perhaps the most inventive use of airborne carbon today comes from a company called Air Company, which takes an almost philosophical approach to the recycled carbon field, based on the premise that carbon is carbon, no matter what form it takes.
As it happens, carbon plays a big part in the human form. By mass, carbon is the second-most prevalent element making up the human body by mass, clocking in at 18.5 percent. Only oxygen outdoes carbon, at 65 percent. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but it runs a distant third, with 9.5 percent. About a dozen elements consisting mainly of nitrogen and metals make up the rest.
Air Company sources its carbon from a variety of areas.
“The carbon dioxide (CO2) used in our process is captured from traditional fermentation and industrial alcohol plants prior to it being emitted into the atmosphere. The CO2 arrives to us in tanks after it has been cooled, pressurized and liquified,” Air Company explains.
So far, Air Company lists vodka, air spray, sugar and perfume on its recycled carbon list. Others are sure to follow.
The artificial leaf: making all sorts of new plastics from recycled carbon
The appearance of sugar in Air Company’s product line may be surprising, but it is no surprise to many scientists. Researchers know how to create “artificial leaf” systems that replicate photosynthesis, the process by which plants deploy sunlight and water to convert carbon dioxide from the air into sugars.
They also know how to convert captured carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, which is a building block for fuels and other industrial products.
To date, the artificial leaf process relies on recycled carbon that has already been captured and isolated. The next challenge is to capture carbon directly from the air, just like a plant.
Last year, researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory received a three-year, $4.5 million grant to demonstrate a new artificial leaf that could produce a variety of valuable chemicals for fuels and for plastics, resins and glues.
Recycled, and recyclable, carbon for vegan leather
One leading challenge in the recycling field is to come up with end products that can meet performance standards. That is especially tricky in the area of food packaging.
The company NewLight recently leaped that boundary, by achieving approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its carbon-negative “AirCarbon” plastic.
To make AirCarbon, NewLight mimics ocean dwelling microorganisms that consume methane and carbon dioxide. The organisms produce a biomaterial called PHB, which can be melted and formed to make alternatives to leather, as well as fibers and plastics.
The company’s Covalent fashion brand is currently focused on replacing leather for carbon-negative bags, wallets and cases as well as plastic for eyewear, and its Restore brand is producing carbon-negative straws and cutlery.
Jet fuel from the air
Decarbonizing the airline industry is a major challenge. Batteries and fuel cells can (and most likely, will) power small aircraft over relatively short distances in the near future, but so far biofuel is the only option within reach for larger aircraft that travel long distances.
However, another option is also emerging. The California company Twelve is on track to compete with jet biofuel stakeholders. Twelve has developed an electrolyzer system for carbon capture, similar to the electrolyzers used for extracting “green” hydrogen from water. By adding carbon dioxide from the air to the process, Twelve deploys both green hydrogen and carbon to make jet fuel and other products, as well.
Twelve’s proprietary E-Jet fuel was certified for use by the U.S. Air Force last summer. The company has also partnered with Pangaia to produce sunglasses from captured carbon, and it is working with Tide and Mercedes-Benz on detergents and car parts made with captured carbon.
Moving past fossil energy
The common denominator among all five innovators is using captured carbon to make wide variety of products, reducing the need to continue extracting virgin carbon from underground.
So far these markets are vanishingly small, but they can contribute to larger trends, including bioplastics and plastic recycling, that help reduce dependence on conventional petrochemicals.
Signs of accelerated activity are already occurring. For example, Microsoft recently gave the field a kickstart by establishing a $1 billion next-generation carbon recycling fund. Other brands seeking to hop on board the trend will need to act fast if they want to establish their position in the vanguard.
Image credit via Air Company