Have a Carbon Cocktail: Entrepreneurs Find Surprising Uses for Captured CO2

Now much of this captured carbon is used in oil extraction. But other creative uses are emerging, from the most eccentric to the most serious.

Consumers will need reassurance about the safety of some of these new products, says Volker Sick, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan and director of the Global CO2 Initiative, a research group that seeks to make carbon capture more widespread. and the use of carbon. “It’s a bit of a problem, not that we haven’t done this on a large scale with many industries over the centuries, but because we need to do it very quickly,” he says.

Here are some of the latest efforts to utilize captured carbon.

CO2 on the rocks

Cocktail drinkers can now sip carbon dioxide-based vodka.

Air Company, a Brooklyn-based startup, uses photosynthesis-inspired technology to create distilled vodka from CO2 byproducts. It first creates hydrogen from water using a process known as electrolysis, before feeding it into a reactor alongside CO2 captured from ethanol plants in the northeast , according to the company. The gases then pass over a catalyst, says Stafford Sheehan, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer. The resulting mixture of ethanol and water is distilled into vodka, says Dr. Sheehan. The company estimates that producing one liter of vodka removes one pound of CO2 from the air.

The liquor, marketed as Air Vodka, is available in 750ml bottles and sells for around $65. Air Company is using a similar technique to make hand sanitizer and, starting this spring, perfume. These products are a stepping stone to building more complex products such as jet fuel, says Dr. Sheehan. “We’re not sitting here making vodka for the sake of making vodka.”

Greener polyester


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The fashion industry was responsible for around 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, according to research by McKinsey & Co. Today, startups are turning to developing solutions that they claim , could help decarbonize the sector.

LanzaTech, an Illinois-based biotechnology company, has designed technology to use recycled carbon emissions in the manufacture of polyester fabrics. The first step is to capture carbon monoxide at a steel mill in China before it can burn and generate CO2, says Jennifer Holmgren, the company’s chief executive. The gas is then compressed in a bioreactor where bacteria ferment it into ethanol, which is then used to replace the petroleum building blocks in the polyester, she says.

LanzaTech’s technology provided the base for 20% of the polyester in evening dresses launched by Zara last December, says Dr. Holmgren. The company has also collaborated with Lululemon to create carbon-based polyester that could soon be used in the brand’s clothing. Producing sustainable polyester can cost around twice as much as using oil or natural gas as a raw material, but brands are increasingly willing to bear that extra cost, says Dr Holmgren. Five years ago, consumers didn’t care so much about the amount of carbon produced by clothing, she says. “Now they do, which means brands care.”

From carbon to food


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Agriculture and land-related activities accounted for 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. At least one startup hopes to use them to fortify foods.

NovoNutrients, a California-based company, has raised $12.6 million in venture capital and grants since 2009 to grow carbon-based proteins it hopes will find use in meat substitutes as well. than in fish feed used in aquaculture. The startup collects carbon dioxide emitted by industrial or energy plants and mixes it in a water solution in a bioreactor with hydrogen, oxygen and ammonia, explains David Tze, CEO of the business. It then introduces up to eight species of bacteria which feed on CO2 and which, combined with inorganic mineral salts such as sulphur, produce nutritional proteins.

The proteins are harvested, sterilized and textured into an amber-colored powder, says Tze. The startup aims to sell the proteins to food and feed manufacturers as ingredients and has sent samples to some of the industry’s biggest companies, he says.

Carbon for your laundry


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Shampoo, toothpaste and detergent are among thousands of everyday products containing ingredients derived from fossil fuels, according to the US Department of Energy. Within a few years, the petrochemical components of these products could be replaced by CO2-based components.


a German company that manufactures polymer materials, is working to use CO2 as a raw material in household detergents and cleaning products. Since 2019, the company has been developing technology that could allow it to replace up to 25% of captured CO2 with ethylene oxide, a gas found in detergents typically made from petroleum or natural gas, explains Christoph Gürtler, a CO2 researcher leading the effort at Covestro. Detergents made using this technology could be available in homes from around 2024-25, he says.

A new jet fuel


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The aviation industry is responsible for about 2.8% of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency. But the electrification of large carriers presents a number of technical challenges. Today, startups are racing to convert CO2 into jet fuel to achieve net zero emissions.

Among them, California-based Twelve has developed a suitcase-sized modular reactor that it says can convert CO2 into the ingredients needed to produce jet fuel. He recently worked with synthetic fuel company Emerging Fuels Technology to produce and test a batch of fuel from CO2, thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the US Air Force. The company uses renewable electricity and water to separate CO2 at low temperatures and produce carbon monoxide before adding hydrogen to the mix. This creates syngas that can be used as the basis for jet fuel that produces far fewer carbon emissions than fossil fuel, Twelve says.

The reactors individually produce less than 10 tonnes of fuel per day, but can be combined to increase capacity, says chief executive and co-founder Nicholas Flanders. But there are other constraints to producing large amounts of fuel using this technology, including access to renewable energy and the ability to tap into sufficient power, Twelve says.

The company plans to start manufacturing the reactors at a North American plant in 2023, Flanders said.

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