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Could future clothes, bottles and chairs be made from carbon emissions?

 
Plastic Bags

AirCarbon rearranges the carbon molecules from greenhouse gas emissions and produces a plastic that can then be used to make everyday plastic products. Photograph: Christopher Thomond

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Could future clothes, bottles and chairs be made from carbon emissions?” was written by Bruce Watson, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 26th February 2014 18.35 UTC

Finding materials that are both sustainable and affordable has long been a central quandary in sustainable design. Certainly, high-cost, high-end materials, like sustainably-sourced hardwoods and post-consumer paper products, exist. However, the price of these products often pushes them out of the reach of many consumers.

Adding to the frustration is the fact that there is no dearth of available sustainable materials, including recovered waste. What if companies could move the recovered materials needle up a notch? What if, instead of simply diverting materials from landfills, they could recover a harmful waste material before it is even released? And what if, in the process, they could replace some of the most environmentally unsound materials currently in use?

Those questions lie at the heart of a new level of sustainable materials engineering. Across the globe, a growing cadre of engineers and researchers are looking for ways to transform greenhouse gases into useable materials.

For the most part, the push to deal with greenhouse gases has focused on limiting, offsetting and sequestering the materials, either by regulating the gasses that factories release, encouraging manufacturers to offset their “carbon footprint,” or collecting greenhouse gases and burying them deep within the earth. However, many of these gasses are at least partially composed of carbon, which means that they contain the building blocks of many popular materials, including plastic.

The vast majority of plastic is produced from petroleum, which means that the long carbon chains that make up the material come from one of the most environmentally costly materials on the planet. The question, then, is how to take the carbon molecules that make up greenhouse gases like methane, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, and transform them into long, plastic-like carbon chains.

Creating carbon chains

AirCarbon entrepreneur Mark Herrema thinks that he may have a solution. By combining methane and carbon dioxide with a proprietary catalyst, his company rearranges the carbon into long chains, producing a plastic that can then be used to make bottles, chairs or almost anything else that plastic is currently used for.

AirCarbon diverts carbon from the atmosphere, but instead of burying it in the earth or storing it in canisters, it repurposes it as a useable material. Herrema emphasizes that his company’s product is completely carbon negative: from collection of the greenhouse gases to transportation to production of the plastics. Currently, AirCarbon’s plastics are used by over thirty companies, including Virgin and KI.

“Keeping up with demand is our biggest challenge right now,” Herrema explains. In August, 2013, the company scaled up to commercial production for the first time, and are now focusing on expansion. It plans to open another plant in late 2014 or early 2015.

Part of AirCarbon’s high demand comes from the fact that it not only competes on sustainability, but also competes on price. “We want to make a global scale difference with this resin, and the only way we could do that was if we out-competed on price,” Herrema says.

A growing trend?

AirCarbon isn’t the only company that is working on putting greenhouse gases to better use. Novomer, a US-owned company, is also trying to find ways to replace existing materials with sequestered carbon. Novomer uses carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, both greenhouse gases.

Its carbon monoxide work is largely comparable to AirCarbon’s: it uses organic catalysts to encourage the carbon in carbon monoxide to form long chains, producing a material that can replace many current plastic uses. Eventually, the company estimates, its work with carbon monoxide could yield a market potential in excess of $12bn.

Novomar's Foam Blocks

Novomar’s foam blocks, which are made from a process of carbon sequestration. Photograph: Novomar

 

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