Each year the world releases around 33 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. What if we could use this waste carbon dioxide to make shirts, dresses and hats? It sounds unbelievable. But two innovators are trying to tackle climate change in this truly unique way.
Chemist Tawfiq Nasr Allah set up Fairbrics with material scientist Benoît Illy in 2019. They're using waste carbon dioxide from industrial fumes as a raw material to create polyester, identical to the everyday polyester we use now. They want to take a new and very different approach to make the fashion industry more sustainable.
The Dark Side of Fast Fashion
The fashion industry is responsible for around 4% of global emissions. In a 2015 report, the MIT Materials Systems Laboratory predicted that the global impact of polyester fabric will grow from around 880 billion kg of CO2 in 2015 to 1.5 trillion kg of CO2 by 2030.
Professor Greg Peters, an expert in environmental science and sustainability, highlights the wide-ranging difficulties caused by the production of polyester. "Because it is made from petrochemical crude oil there is no real limit on how much polyester can be produced...You have to consider the ecological damage (oil spills, fracking etc.) caused by the oil and gas industry."
Many big-name brands have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050. But nothing has really changed in the way polyester is produced.
Some companies are recycling plastic bottles into polyester. The plastic is melted into ultra-fine strands and then spun to create polyester. However, only a limited number of bottles are available. New materials must be added because of the amount of plastic degradation that takes place. Ultimately, recycling accounts for only a small percentage of the total amount of polyester produced.
Nasr Allah and Illy hope they can offer the solution the fashion industry is looking for. They are not just reducing the carbon emissions that are conventionally produced by making polyester. Their process actually goes much further. It's carbon negative and works by using up emissions from other industries.
"In a sense we imitate what nature does so well: plants capture CO2 and turn it into natural fibers using sunlight, we capture CO2 and turn it into synthetic fibers using electricity."
Experts in the field see a lot of promise. Dr Phil de Luna is an expert in carbon valorization -- the process of converting carbon dioxide into high-value chemicals. He leads a $57-million research program developing the technology to decarbonize Canada.
"I think the approach is great," he says. "Being able to take CO2 and then convert it into polymers or polyester is an excellent way to think about utilizing waste emissions and replacing fossil fuel-based materials. That is overall a net negative as compared to making polyester from fossil fuels."
From Harmful Waste to Useful Raw Material
It all started with Nasr Allah's academic research, primarily at the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). He spent almost 5 years investigating CO2 valorization. In essence, this involves breaking the bonds between the carbon and oxygen atoms in CO2 to create bonds with other elements.
Recycling carbon dioxide in this way requires extremely high temperatures and pressures. Catalysts are needed to break the strong bonds between the atoms. However, these are toxic, volatile and quickly lose their effectiveness over time. So, directly converting carbon dioxide into the raw material for making polyester fibers is very difficult.
Nasr Allah developed a process involving multiple simpler stages. His innovative approach involves converting carbon dioxide to intermediate chemicals. These chemicals can then be transformed into the raw material which is used in the production of polyester. After many experiments, Nasr Allah developed new processes and new catalysts that worked more effectively.
"We use a catalyst to transform CO2 into the chemicals that are used for polyester manufacturing," Illy says. "In a sense we imitate what nature does so well: plants capture CO2 and turn it into natural fibers using sunlight, we capture CO2 and turn it into synthetic fibers using electricity."
The Challenges Ahead
Nasr Allah met material scientist Illy through Entrepreneur First, a programme which pairs individuals looking to form technical start-ups. Together they set up Fairbrics and worked on converting Nasr Allah's lab findings into commercial applications and industrial success.
"The main challenge we faced was to scale up the process," Illy reveals. "[It had to be] consistent and safe to be carried out by a trained technician, not a specialist PhD as was the case in the beginning."
They recruited a team of scientists to help them develop a more effective and robust manufacturing process. Together, the team gained a more detailed theoretical understanding about what was happening at each stage of the chemical reactions. Eventually, they were able to fine tune the process and produce consistent batches of polyester.
They're making significant progress. They've produced their first samples and signed their first commercial contract to make polyester, which will then be both fabricated into clothes and sold by partner companies.
Currently, one of the largest challenges is financial. "We need to raise a fair amount to buy the equipment we need to produce at a large scale," Illy explains.
How to Power the Process?
At the moment, their main scientific focus is getting the process working reliably so they can begin commercialization. In order to remain sustainable and economically viable once they start producing polyester on a large scale, they need to consider the amount of energy they use for carbon valorization and the emissions they produce.
The more they optimize the way their catalyst works, the easier it will be to transform the CO2. The whole process can then become more cost effective and energy efficient.
De Luna explains: "My concern is...whether their process will be economical at scale. The problem is the energy cost to take carbon dioxide and transform it into these other products and that's where the science and innovation has to happen. [Whether they can scale up economically] depends on the performance of their catalyst."
They don't just need to think about the amount of energy they use to produce polyester; they also have to consider where this energy comes from.
"They need access to cheap renewable energy," De Luna says, "...so they're not using or emitting CO2 to do the conversion." If the energy they use to transform CO2 into polyester actually ends up producing more CO2, this will end up cancelling out their positive environmental impact.
Based in France, they're well located to address this issue. France has a clean electricity system, with only about 10% of their electric power coming from fossil fuels due to their reliance on nuclear energy and renewables.
Where Do They Get the Carbon Dioxide?
As they scale up, they also need to be able to access a source of CO2. They intend to obtain this from the steel industry, the cement industry, and hydrogen production.
The technology to purify and capture waste carbon dioxide from these industries is available on a large scale. However, there are only around 20 commercial operations in the world. The high cost of carbon capture means that development continues to be slow. There are a growing number of startups capturing carbon dioxide straight from the air, but this is even more costly.
One major problem is that storing captured carbon dioxide is expensive. "There are somewhat limited options for permanently storing captured CO2, so innovations like this are important,'' says T. Reed Miller, a researcher at the Yale University Center for Industrial Ecology.
Illy says: "The challenge is now to decrease the cost [of carbon capture]. By using CO2 as a raw material, we can try to increase the number of industries that capture CO2. Our goal is to turn CO2 from a waste into a valuable product."
For Nasr Allah and Illy, fashion is just the beginning. There are many markets they can potentially break into. Next, they hope to use the polyester they've created in the packaging industry. Today, a lot of polyester is consumed to make bottles and jars. Illy believes that eventually they can produce many different chemicals from CO2. These chemicals could then be used to make paints, adhesives, and even plastics.
The Fairbrics scientists are providing a vital alternative to fossil fuels and showcasing the real potential of carbon dioxide to become a worthy resource instead of a harmful polluter.
Illy believes they can make a real difference through innovation: "We can have a significant impact in reducing climate change."
Since the beginning of life on Earth, plants have been naturally converting sunlight into energy. This photosynthesis process that's effortless for them has been anything but for scientists who have been trying to achieve artificial photosynthesis for the last half a century with the goal of creating a carbon-neutral fuel. Such a fuel could be a gamechanger — rather than putting CO2 back into the atmosphere like traditional fuels do, it would take CO2 out of the atmosphere and convert it into usable energy.
If given the option between a carbon-neutral fuel at the gas station and a fuel that produces carbon dioxide in spades -- and if costs and effectiveness were equal --who wouldn't choose the one best for the planet? That's the endgame scientists are after. A consumer switch to clean fuel could have a huge impact on our global CO2 emissions.
Up until this point, the methods used to make liquid fuel from atmospheric CO2 have been expensive, not efficient enough to really get off the ground, and often resulted in unwanted byproducts. But now, a new technology may be the key to unlocking the full potential of artificial photosynthesis. At the very least, it's a step forward and could help make a dent in atmospheric CO2 reduction.
"It's an important breakthrough in artificial photosynthesis," says Qian Wang, a researcher in the Department of Chemistry at Cambridge University and lead author on a recent study published in Nature about an innovation she calls "photosheets."
The latest version of the artificial leaf directly produces liquid fuel, which is easier to transport and use commercially.
These photosheets convert CO2, sunlight, and water into a carbon-neutral liquid fuel called formic acid without the aid of electricity. They're made of semiconductor powders that absorb sunlight. When in the presence of water and CO2, the electrons in the powders become excited and join with the CO2 and protons from the water molecules, reducing the CO2 in the process. The chemical reaction results in the production of formic acid, which can be used directly or converted to hydrogen, another clean energy fuel.
In the past, it's been difficult to reduce CO2 without creating a lot of unwanted byproducts. According to Wang, this new conversion process achieves the reduction and fuel creation with almost no byproducts.
The Cambridge team's new technology is a first and certainly momentous, but they're far from the only team to have produced fuel from CO2 using some form of artificial photosynthesis. More and more scientists are aiming to perfect the method in hopes of producing a truly sustainable, photosynthetic fuel capable of lowering carbon emissions.
Thanks to advancements in nanoscience, which has led to better control of materials, more successes are emerging. A team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, used gold nanoparticles as the photocatalysts in their process.
"My group demonstrated that you could actually use gold nanoparticles both as a light absorber and a catalyst in the process of converting carbon dioxide to hydrocarbons such as methane, ethane and propane fuels," says professor Prashant Jain, co-author of the study. Not only are gold nanoparticles great at absorbing light, they don't degrade as quickly as other metals, which makes them more sustainable.
That said, Jain's team, like every other research team working on artificial photosynthesis including the Cambridge team, is grappling with efficiency issues. Jain says that all parts of the process need to be optimized so the reaction can happen as quickly as possible.
"You can't just improve one [aspect], because that can lead to a decrease in performance in some other aspects," Jain explains.
The Cambridge team is currently experimenting with a range of catalysts to improve their device's stability and efficiency. Virgil Andrei, who is working on an artificial leaf design that was developed at Cambridge in 2019, was recently able to improve the performance and selectivity of the device. Now the leaf's solar-to-CO2 energy conversion efficiency is 0.2%, twice its previous efficiency.
The latest version also directly produces liquid fuel, which is easier to transport and use commercially.
In determining a method of fuel production's efficiency, one must consider how sustainable it is at every stage. That involves calculating whenever excess energy is needed to complete a step. According to Jain, in order to use CO2 for fuel production, you have to condense the CO2, which takes energy. And on the fuel production side, once the chemical reaction has created your byproducts, they need to be separated, which also takes energy.
To be truly sustainable, each part of the conversion system also needs to be durable. If parts need to be replaced often, or regularly maintained, that counts against it. Then you have to account for the system's reuse cycle. If you extract CO2 from the environment and convert it into fuel that's then put into a fuel cell, it's going to release CO2 at the other end. In order to create a fully green, carbon-neutral fuel source, that same amount of CO2 needs to be trapped and reintroduced back into the fuel conversion system.
"The cycle continues, and at each point, you will see a loss in efficiency, and depending on how much you [may also] see a loss in yield," says Jain. "And depending on what those efficiencies are at each one of those points will determine whether or not this process can be sustainable."
The science is at least a decade away from offering a competitive sustainable fuel option at scale. Streamlining a process to mimic what plants have perfected over billions of years is no small feat, but an ever-growing community of researchers using rapidly advancing technology is driving progress forward.
When NASA's Perseverance rover landed successfully on Mars on February 18, 2021, calling it "one giant leap for mankind" – as Neil Armstrong said when he set foot on the moon in 1969 – would have been inaccurate. This year actually marked the fifth time the U.S. space agency has put a remote-controlled robotic exploration vehicle on the Red Planet. And it was a female engineer named Donna Shirley who broke new ground for women in science as the manager of both the Mars Exploration Program and the 30-person team that built Sojourner, the first rover to land on Mars on July 4, 1997.
For Shirley, the Mars Pathfinder mission was the climax of her 32-year career at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The Oklahoma-born scientist, who earned her Master's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California, saw her profile skyrocket with media appearances from CNN to the New York Times, and her autobiography Managing Martians came out in 1998. Now 79 and living in a Tulsa retirement community, she still embraces her status as a female pioneer.
"Periodically, I'll hear somebody say they got into the space program because of me, and that makes me feel really good," Shirley told Leaps.org. "I look at the mission control area, and there are a lot of women in there. I'm quite pleased I was able to break the glass ceiling."
Her $25-million, 25-pound microrover – powered by solar energy and designed to get rock samples and test soil chemistry for evidence of life – was named after Sojourner Truth, a 19th-century Black abolitionist and women's rights activist. Unlike Mars Pathfinder, Shirley didn't have to travel more than 131 million miles to reach her goal, but her path to scientific fame as a woman sometimes resembled an asteroid field.
As a high-IQ tomboy growing up in Wynnewood, Oklahoma (pop. 2,300), Shirley yearned to escape. She decided to become an engineer at age 10 and took flying lessons at 15. Her extraterrestrial aspirations were fueled by Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and Arthur C. Clarke's The Sands of Mars. Yet when she entered the University of Oklahoma (OU) in 1958, her freshman academic advisor initially told her: "Girls can't be engineers." She ignored him.
Years later, Shirley would combat such archaic thinking, succeeding at JPL with her creative, collaborative management style. "If you look at the literature, you'll find that teams that are either led by or heavily involved with women do better than strictly male teams," she noted.
However, her career trajectory stalled at OU. Burned out by her course load and distracted by a broken engagement to marry a fellow student, she switched her major to professional writing. After graduation, she applied her aeronautical background as a McDonnell Aircraft technical writer, but her boss, she says, harassed her and she faced gender-based hostility from male co-workers.
Returning to OU, Shirley finished off her engineering degree and became a JPL aerodynamist in 1966 after answering an ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. At first, she was the only female engineer among the research center's 2,000-odd engineers. She wore many hats, from designing planetary atmospheric entry vehicles to picking the launch date of November 4, 1973 for Mariner 10's mission to Venus and Mercury.
By the mid-1980's, she was managing teams that focused on robotics and Mars, delivering creative solutions when NASA budget cuts loomed. In 1989, the same year the Sojourner microrover concept was born, President George H.W. Bush announced his Space Exploration Initiative, including plans for a human mission to Mars by 2019.
That target, of course, wasn't attained, despite huge advances in technology and our understanding of the Martian environment. Today, Shirley believes humans could land on Mars by 2030. She became the founding director of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle in 2004 after leaving NASA, and to this day, she enjoys checking out pop culture portrayals of Mars landings – even if they're not always accurate.
After the novel The Martian was published in 2011, which later was adapted into the hit film starring Matt Damon, Shirley phoned author Andy Weir: "You've got a major mistake in here. It says there's a storm that tries to blow the rocket over. But actually, the Mars atmosphere is so thin, it would never blow a rocket over!"
Fearlessly speaking her mind and seeking the stars helped Donna Shirley make history. However, a 2019 Washington Post story noted: "Women make up only about a third of NASA's workforce. They comprise just 28 percent of senior executive leadership positions and are only 16 percent of senior scientific employees." Whether it's traveling to Mars or trending toward gender equality, we've still got a long way to go.