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These startups are giving captured CO2 new purpose

Photo: Dreamstime
Photo: Dreamstime

By Coco Liu

For most perfume makers, ingredients to make it smell great are the most important feature. But for Stafford Sheehan, a cofounder and chemist at Air Company, the most important part of perfume-making has no scent at all.

New York-based Air Company uses technology that converts planet-warming carbon dioxide into ethanol, which is then blended with essential oils and water to produce perfume. While the pale yellow-color Air Eau de Parfum is about 50% more expensive than Coco Chanel’s signature No. 5, Sheehan says his product is uniquely valuable: Every 50-millilitre bottle uses 3.6 grams of CO2 that otherwise would have been released into the atmosphere. Its package reads: “Turning CO2 into something beautiful.”

While the volume of CO2 utilised in the bottle is extremely small, Air Company’s perfume showcases one way the coming wave of captured carbon can be put to use. Renewable energy and electric cars alone won’t be enough to cut CO2 emissions to zero. The world will almost certainly need to capture billions of tonnes of the gas annually in the coming decades. Large amounts will likely be stored underground. Using it — so-called carbon capture and utilisation, or CCU — to create new products from perfume to jet fuel could be an important tool in the fight against climate change, too, though the nascent industry has major hurdles to overcome.

Roughly 230 million tonnes of CO2 are utilised every year, according to a 2019 report by the International Energy Agency. While roughly one-third of that is reused to force more oil from the ground — hardly a carbon-neutral process — CCU advocates say that the number of companies coming up with new uses for carbon has mushroomed in recent years, paving a way to unlock climate benefits. Carbon-derived fuels and chemicals, for example, could theoretically grow to the scale of billions of tons of CO2 use per year if companies could perfect their technology and lower costs.

Calgary-based CleanO2 transforms CO2 captured from building heating boilers into feedstock to make soap. Newlight Technologies, a biotechnology startup based in California, takes carbon pulled directly from the air and turns it into biodegradable plastics. Germany’s Covestro AG, one of the world’s largest polymer manufacturers, is also switching some of its fossil fuel-based feedstocks to carbon-derived materials for everything ranging from car shells to medical devices and stadium roofs.

Most companies working on CO2-sequestering products are still in their infancy. To grow the emerging sector, global venture capitalists in 2022 poured nearly $500 million into carbon utilisation businesses, according to the IEA. That’s in stark contrast to 2015, when barely any venture money went to technologies that utilise CO2.

“It’s just a whole different landscape today than it was a decade ago,” says Sasha Mackler, executive director of the energy program at Washington, DC-based non-profit Bipartisan Policy Center.

Jennifer Holmgren, chief executive officer of LanzaTech Global Inc., has experienced the shifting sentiment firsthand. The Illinois-based company uses a carbon-eating bacteria – discovered in the guts of rabbits and preserved as powder – to make alternative ethanol in bioreactors not dissimilar to how breweries ferment beer. In the early 2010s, when Holmgren touted carbon-derived ethanol to prospective customers, her sales pitch was met with scepticism.

But the tide began turning later that decade. In 2018, the company’s jet fuel produced from the emissions of a Chinese steel mill helped power a Transatlantic flight. LanzaTech has also inked agreements with airlines including Japan’s All Nippon Airways to supply CO2-derived jet fuel. And LanzaJet, the company’s spin-off, plans to start producing sustainable jet fuels at a commercial scale this year.

Yet for all the hype around sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) using captured carbon, the industry is still an extremely small player. Almost every major airline in the world has pledged to use at least 10% sustainable jet fuels by 2030, yet SAF makes up only 0.1% of global aviation fuel supply — and much of it is made from sources other than captured CO2, such as used cooking oil.

“There’s a lot more interest because consumers have become much more interested in buying things that are lower carbon,” says Holmgren. That’s enabled LanzaTech to expand the number of products that utilise CO2.

American plastic container maker Plastipak, for instance, has partnered with LanzaTech to produce carbon-derived packaging materials, while polyester converted from LanzaTech’s ethanol has replaced its petroleum-based counterpart at a pilot scale in Lululemon shorts, Zara dresses, H&M yoga pants, On running shoes and Craghoppers jackets. Like SAF, though, there’s still a long way to go for CO2-derived polyester to reach meaningful levels of use.

Momentum to grow beyond one-off products and low-scale production has also been supercharged by a growing array of regulations and incentives around the world. For instance, the Inflation Reduction Act that US President Joe Biden signed in 2022 raised the tax credit for carbon capture and utilisation by more than 70% to $60 per metric ton in an effort to make costly projects more financially appealing.

To keep the climate within habitable limits, the IEA estimates that carbon capture will have to grow to 7.6 billion tons of CO2 annually by mid-century. CCU will play a role, though just how big remains to be seen. Not every use case is created equal and some approaches, such as dissolving compressed CO2 in water to make carbonated beverages, only store the gas temporarily. To quantify the true climate benefit of carbon utilisation, experts say third-party verification is badly needed.

The rise of CCU technology comes as another key approach in President Biden’s net-zero roadmap is hitting a bit of a wall. Carbon capture and storage — that is, gathering CO2 as it’s released from a coal-fired power plant or other emissions source and sequestering it underground — has faced challenges because carbon is often captured in one place and stored in another. That requires pipelines to transport the gas, which many local communities have opposed. Blackrock-backed Navigator, for example, recently announced it was scrapping a planned 1,300-mile CO2 pipeline.

Carbon utilisation companies say that they can sidestep that issue by using carbon near or at where it’s captured.

At its 12-acre factory in Brooklyn, Glenwood Mason Supply demonstrates how. The concrete manufacturer takes CO2 captured at a residential building by its partner company, CarbonQuest, and uses a technique licensed from low-carbon concrete startup CarbonCure to convert the compressed carbon into a powder not unlike dry ice. It then injects it into industrial mixers. There, the CO2 meets cement, sand and aggregate, setting off a series of chemical reactions. The final result is concrete blocks with CO2 sealed in.

The technique not only stores carbon but it can also make the blocks marginally stronger. The company estimates that it has utilised about 100 tonnes of CO2 in total since 2020. Even if the blocks break down, the stored carbon won’t be released as CO2 because it’s been mineralised.

“Cement is a big offender in carbon emissions,” says Constance Cincotta, founder of the concrete factory. She became intrigued by the technology and its ability to lower her company’s climate impact after hearing about it at an industry conference in the early 2010s. But it wasn’t until CarbonCure came on the scene a few years ago that the prospect of CO2-storing cement became tangible. Glenwood Mason then sourced CO2 locally from CarbonQuest, which captures carbon from buildings in New York. Those factors have enabled large-scale production.

While Cincotta’s intended to help the planet, she and her team discovered that sinking CO2 into concrete blocks is good for the business, too. In 2019, New York City — where the majority of the company’s concrete blocks are sold — passed a regulation requiring all buildings to shrink their carbon footprint 40% by the end of the decade. Glenwood Mason’s phones have been ringing ever since, with calls from architects and property developers who want to leverage their lower-carbon building materials to cut emissions, says Jeff Hansen, the company’s vice president in architectural sales and marketing.

The factory’s CO2-storing concrete blocks also caught the eye of Amazon.com, which in 2022 persuaded a real estate developer to purchase roughly 50,000 blocks for the construction of a new warehouse in New York that Amazon has leased. Had Glenwood Mason not sealed CO2 in its blocks, it wouldn’t have won the contract, Hansen says. To figure out how to pack more carbon into its products, the company has set up a laboratory in its factory to test the reaction between CO2 and other concrete feedstocks under different temperatures and humidity levels.

But figuring out the right formula is only one consideration. Utilising CO2 often comes with an additional cost. As the demand for CO2-derived products climbs, that green premium is expected to go down. Yet “it’s very hard to be a cost parity with a 100-year-old industry that doesn’t even have to pay for its externalities,” says Holmgren of LanzaTech. Even with economies of scale, Holmgren estimates that carbon-containing fabrics will still likely cost as much as 20% higher than conventional ones.

“It’s unlikely that we will ever be a cost parity,” she says.

In addition to the cost barrier, CCU companies also have to convince end users that may be suspicious of unproven new technologies.

Changing feedstocks “does come with risks,” says Keith Wiggins, chief executive officer of Econic Technologies, a British startup that specialises in making carbon-derived chemicals. To get risk-averse industries onboard, Wiggins says his company is laser-focused on those that are under consumer pressure to change course.

That strategy seems to be working. Econic has teamed up with three manufacturers in the US, China and India to produce mattresses, outdoor garments and building insulation materials that utilise CO2. The first batch of products using the company’s technology are scheduled to enter the market in 2024.

For all the promise of the carbon utilisation industry, it remains to be seen if it can challenge the status quo. While Air Company started selling carbon-derived perfume in 2021, the startup has yet to build its first commercial plant, Sheehan says, citing the time-consuming process needed for collecting data and fine-tuning the technology for large-scale production.

For now, the company’s demonstration facility in New York City — where CO2 and hydrogen gas flow through tubes into a reactor to form chemical reactions, aided by catalysts made from a confidential mixture of metals — is designed to yield at least 10,000 gallons of CO2-derived liquid annually. The limited production capacity has left many orders for its perfume — as well as jet fuels and Air Vodka, another popular product made from CO2 — unfilled.

“We need to scale these facilities to the size of oil refineries today in order to have the impact on climate change that we want to have,” Sheehan says.

— Bloomberg L.P.

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