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."
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor types, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.