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."
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.