Manufacturing Goes Carbon Negative
A growing number of innovative companies is capturing CO2 and using it to create materials and products for human consumption.
In 1996, the carpet tiles produced by Interface Inc. — the world’s largest modular carpet manufacturer — had an estimated carbon footprint of 37 pounds of CO2 per square yard. That’s equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide released by burning a little less than two gallons of gasoline. Today, Interface has developed a carpet tile prototype, called Proof Positive, that can be produced while removing 3.7 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere with each square yard produced. And because Interface utilizes a closed-loop recycling program, through which it works with regional recyclers to collect old carpets and reprocess them into new ones, the carbon it removes could remain out of the atmosphere for generations.
The Proof Positive carpet tile is not yet ready for the market. But as Erin Meezan, Interface’s chief sustainability officer, points out, the company has been selling the backing material developed for the tile in Europe since the fall of 2017. CircuitBac Green carpet backing is made from 97 percent nonvirgin petrochemical content (recycled limestone filler, as well as bioplastics and natural oils), and only 3 percent virgin petrochemical content. The total recycled and bio-based content for a finished carpet can be as high as 87 percent, with a carbon footprint as low as 4.2 pounds per square yard — or less than half that of its predecessor.
The evolution of Interface’s carpet manufacturing process is part of the next phase of sustainable business practices. For centuries, many of the products intended for human consumption relied on the extraction of raw materials from the Earth and, in the process, the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The resulting environmental degradation led some companies in the late 1990s and early 2000s to respond with pledges to go “carbon neutral” — to avoid a net release of carbon by reducing emissions and then buying carbon credits or planting trees. Today, given the heightened urgency of climate change, there’s an even more dramatic development: Companies are going “carbon negative” by finding ways to actively pull carbon dioxide from the air and lock it into their products.
Companies are going “carbon negative” by finding ways to actively pull carbon dioxide from the air and lock it into their products.
For manufacturers such as Interface, this means getting access to carbon-negative raw materials. Manufacturers will soon have more options for doing so, thanks to the startups and innovators forming an emerging industrial sector. It’s a sector so new that it doesn’t have a formal name yet. Some call it carbon dioxide removal, or CDR. Others speak of carbon capture, which is often paired with sequestration, utilization, or both. Regardless of the moniker, the technologies and processes being developed could be game-changing.
Beyond Doing Less Harm
Interface has a long legacy as a leader in the sustainability movement. In 1994, founder Ray Anderson declared his “Mission Zero” goal, to eliminate the company’s negative impact on the environment. The company has since reduced its carbon emissions by 98 percent and its water use by 93 percent, and it recycles 100 percent of its materials.
The company’s current sustainability mission is to take its efforts to the next level. Says Meezan, “How do you shift from the mentality of having less impact, doing less harm…to being a company that actually has a positive impact? We’re talking about explicit goals that go beyond carbon reduction [to] really focus on solving the climate crisis.”
Meezan cites Gregory A. Norris as helping inspire the ideological framework behind some of Interface’s recent moves. Norris is an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and codirector of its Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE). Norris had been doing life-cycle analyses of various industrial processes for years and felt stymied by how difficult it was to get to zero impact, ultimately realizing that shrinking the harm humans do simply isn’t enough. He came up with the idea of a handprint, which, unlike a footprint tracking the many resources used, measures positive environmental contributions.
Indeed, one thing that keeps Meezan — who reports to Interface CEO Jay Gould — up at night is the fact that the company is jumping into this uncharted territory in the absence of clear performance metrics. Interface plans to use Norris’s handprint metric as a way to start tracking its progress, with the Proof Positive carpet tiles as the centerpiece of its effort. It’s a strategy that enables the company to stop seeing carbon as the enemy, and to start seeing it as a resource.
For example, carbon dioxide is a valuable industrial chemical. It has traditionally been used in making carbonated beverages, fire extinguishers, and dry ice. It is also used in larger quantities for enhanced oil recovery, and is an ingredient in fertilizers, plastics, and synthetic rubber. The question now is what else can companies make using captured CO2 and, in so doing, help restore the balance in the amount of carbon stored in the Earth, in the oceans, and in the atmosphere that has been disturbed by centuries of human activity?
Putting Carbon to Work
The companies that make up the burgeoning carbon-negative industrial supply chain fall more or less into three categories. The first group is focused on direct air carbon capture (as opposed to capture from exhaust streams, which can be carbon neutral at best). The second is focused on using captured CO2 to create raw materials. And the third is focused on creating products directly from captured CO2.
The first group of companies, those doing direct air capture (DAC), produce equipment that pulls carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases out of the air to be utilized or sequestered. These companies capture CO2 by passing it through various sorbent materials, to which it binds. Both New York–based Global Thermostat and Carbon Engineering, based in British Columbia, Canada, have built operational pilot plants. Global Thermostat, which is building its first commercial units in Huntsville, Ala., uses proprietary chemical sorbents bonded to honeycomb ceramic monoliths that form carbon sponges, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, smokestacks, or both. The captured CO2 is then released by means of heat or water, collected, and made ready for use. Carbon Engineering uses a liquid CO2 absorber that flows over wavy plastic sheets. The company intends to run a commercial validation project in 2018–19.
Swiss company Climeworks recently demonstrated the ability to pull CO2 out of the air and inject it into basaltic rock formations, where it solidifies and becomes rock within two years (an example of sequestration). Its pilot plant in Iceland can pull 55 tons of CO2 from the air annually — which, though still an infinitesimal amount, shows significant potential.
It should also be noted that companies aren’t the only ones that could utilize DAC technology: A local government or a new type of utility might install this equipment and then pump the carbon underground as a kind of public service.
In the second group, companies are finding new ways to turn recovered CO2 into useful raw materials, such as carbonates, plastics, or fuels. This is the category of company Interface will be looking to for the materials it needs to create carbon-negative carpet tiles. Some of these companies do their own extracting, others obtain it by purchase, and still others receive it from the exhaust streams of power plants or other manufacturers.
Direct air capture (DAC) companies produce equipment that pulls carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases out of the air to be utilized or sequestered.
Boulder, Colo.–based New Sky Energy, for example, extracts CO2 either from the air or from flue gas, and turns it into carbonates that can then be used in manufacturing, food production (for example, in baking soda), and water purification. Covestro, headquartered in Germany and previously known as Bayer MaterialScience, and Boston-based Novomer are both producers of polymer materials. Today, they are making various plastic precursors from CO2, through the use of intermediate polymers such as polyols, from which polyurethane or other polymers can be made. These precursors can then be used as feedstocks by companies such as Interface or by their suppliers. Covestro began producing its CO2-based polyurethane in December 2016 at its Dormagen plant, outside Cologne, drawing the CO2 from the waste stream of a neighboring chemical facility.
The third group of companies pull CO2 out of the air, or from exhaust streams, and turn it directly into products for human consumption. For example, the Indian company Graviky Labs makes ink, in which carbon black, an essential ingredient, is extracted from captured particulate air pollution. Blue Planet, Calera, and Solidia Technologies, all based in the U.S., as well as U.K.-based Carbon8 Systems and the Australian company Calix, all make cement or concrete products using this approach. This is important for two reasons: First, concrete is the most widely used synthetic material in the world. Second, concrete production itself is highly carbon intensive, and using carbon capture can reduce emissions by 70 percent or more, while at the same time sequestering carbon.
Each company’s process is a bit different in terms of the technology used. For example, Blue Planet captures the CO2 in a carbonate solution that forms a CO2-rich coating around small pebbles, creating aggregates that take the place of limestone, the principal component of concrete. Solidia uses a water–CO2 solution to bond sand granules into bricks and blocks. Carbon8 uses calcium and magnesium salts to react with carbon dioxide and form solid carbonates.
Restoring the Balance
To achieve the temperature goals set in the Paris Agreement in 2015 — which would limit the global temperature rise to less than two degrees Celsius — the annual decarbonization rate per dollar of GDP needs to be at least 6.3 percent. But as a recent PwC study found, the average annual decarbonization rate between 2000 and 2016 was just 1.4 percent. The latest projections coming out of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change thus rely on carbon-negative technologies coming quickly to scale: Humans need to begin actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it away.
It will take a variety of efforts to make that happen, spanning the public and private sectors. Putting a price on carbon and making the use of carbon-negative technologies eligible for carbon offsets would go a long way toward sparking the engine, as would tax credits. In the U.S., the FUTURE Act — “furthering carbon capture, utilization, technology, underground storage, and reduced emissions” — which passed as part of the 2018 Budget Act, provides tax incentives of US$35/ton for CO2 removed with direct air capture. Beyond that, manufacturers could commit to sourcing carbon-negative materials. Building codes or green certifications could require that carbon-negative materials be used when available. Retailers could commit to featuring these products, and marketers could tout their advantages, perhaps detailing the company’s handprint as an added selling point.
Meezan says that when Interface first announced its intention of going carbon negative a year ago, the company “wasn’t hearing or seeing as many of those stories on materials that remove carbon from the atmosphere. But it’s really starting to crop up. Some people aren’t talking about it publicly yet, but there are a lot of exciting things happening.”
In short, it’s not only carpet, but buildings themselves, the products inside them, and even the sidewalks and roads the building foundations rest on that could be made from carbon withdrawn from the atmosphere. Carbon-negative manufacturing is a potentially significant new option for stabilizing the climate.
- RP Siegel has been writing about sustainability, technology, the environment, and business since 2004. He has an M.S. in mechanical engineering and spent 20 years working in corporate R&D.