Have a Carbon Cocktail: Entrepreneurs Find Surprising Uses for Captured CO2

Source: By Benoît Morenne, Wall Street Journal • Posted: Sunday, March 6, 2022

As efforts ramp up to reduce greenhouse gasses and help the climate, captured carbon is being used to make products from vodka to laundry detergent

Illustration: Sol Cotti

Consumers will need reassurance that some of these new products are safe, says Volker Sick, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan and director of the Global CO2 Initiative, a research group that seeks to make carbon capture and use mainstream. “This is somewhat of a problem—not that we haven’t done this on a large scale with many industries over the centuries, but because we have to do it really fast,” he says.

Here are some of the latest efforts to make use of captured carbon.

Cocktail drinkers can now sip vodka made from carbon dioxide.

Air Company, a Brooklyn-based startup, uses photosynthesis-inspired technology to create vodka distilled from CO2-derived products. It first creates hydrogen from water using a process known as electrolysis, before feeding it into a reactor alongside CO2 captured from ethanol plants in the Northeast, the company says. The gases then go over a catalyst, says Stafford Sheehan, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer. The resulting mixture of ethanol and water is distilled into vodka, Dr. Sheehan says. The company estimates that producing one liter of vodka takes a pound of CO2 out of the air.

The liquor, marketed as Air Vodka, comes in 750 ml bottles and retails for around $65. Air Company uses a similar technique to make hand sanitizer and, starting this spring, a fragrance. These products are a stepping stone towards building more complex products such as jet fuel, Dr. Sheehan says. “We’re not sitting here cranking out vodka for the sake of cranking out vodka.”

Greener Polyester
Illustration: Sol Cotti

The fashion industry was responsible for about 4% of global greenhouse-gas emissions in 2018, according toresearch by McKinsey & Co. Now, startups are moving to develop solutions that they say could help decarbonize the sector.

LanzaTech, an Illinois-based biotech company, has designed technology to use recycled carbon emissions in making polyester fabric. The first step is capturing carbon monoxide at a steel plant in China before it can burn and generate CO2, says Jennifer Holmgren, the company’s chief executive officer. The gas is then compressed into a bioreactor where bacteria ferments it into ethanol, which is subsequently used to replace petroleum building blocks in polyester, she says.

LanzaTech’s technology provided the basis for 20% of the polyester in party dresses released by Zara last December, Dr. Holmgren says. The company similarly collaborated with Lululemon to create carbon-based polyester that could soon be used in the brand’s garments. Producing sustainable polyester can cost about twice as much as using petroleum or natural gas as source material, but brands are increasingly willing to bear this extra cost, Dr. Holmgren says. Five years ago, consumers didn’t care as much about the amount of carbon making apparel produces, she says. “Now they do, which means brands care.”

Carbon to Food
Illustration: Sol Cotti

Agriculture and land-related activities accounted for 17% of global greenhouse-gas emissions in 2018, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. At least one startup hopes to use these to enrich food.

NovoNutrients, a California-based company, has raised $12.6 million in venture capital and grant funding since 2009 to grow carbon-based proteins it hopes will find use in meat substitutes as well as in fish food used in aquaculture. The startup collects carbon dioxide emitted by industrial or energy plants and mixes it in a water solution in a bioreactor alongside hydrogen, oxygen and ammonia, says David Tze, the company’s chief executive officer. It then introduces up to eight species of bacteria that feed off of CO2 and that, when combined with inorganic mineral salts such as sulfur, produce nutritional proteins.

The proteins are harvested, sterilized and textured into an amber-colored powder, Mr. Tze says. The startup aims to sell the proteins to food and feed makers as ingredients and has sent samples to some of the largest companies in this sector, he says.

Carbon for Your Laundry
Illustration: Sol Cotti

Shampoo, toothpaste and detergent are among thousands of everyday products containing ingredients derived from fossil fuels, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Within the next few years, petrochemicals in these products could be replaced by CO2-based constituents.

Covestro, a German company that makes polymer materials, is working to use CO2 as a raw material in house detergents and cleaning products. Since 2019, the company has been developing technology that could allow it to substitute captured CO2 for up to 25% of ethylene oxide, a gas found in detergents that is typically made from petroleum or natural gas, says Christoph Gürtler, a CO2 researcher leading the effort at Covestro. Detergents made using this technology could be available in homes starting around 2024-25, he says.

A New Jet Fuel
Illustration: Sol Cotti

The aviation industry is responsible for about 2.8% of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion, according to the International Energy Agency. But electrifying large aircraft presents a number of technical challenges. Now, startups are racing to convert CO2 into jet fuel in order to achieve net-zero emissions.

Among them, the California-based Twelve has developed a suitcase-size modular reactor it says can convert CO2 into ingredients needed to produce jet fuel. It recently worked with synthetic fuel company Emerging Fuels Technology to produce and test a batch of fuel from CO2, using a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Air Force. The company uses renewable electricity and water to split CO2 at low temperatures and produce carbon monoxide before adding hydrogen into the mix. This creates synthetic gas which can be used as the basis for a jet fuel that produces much lower carbon emissions than fossil-based fuel, Twelve says.

Reactors individually churn out less than 10 tons of fuel a day but can be combined to augment capacities, says chief executive officer and co-founder Nicholas Flanders. But there are other constraints to producing large quantities of fuel using this technology, including having access to renewable energy and being able to tap into sufficient power, Twelve says.

The company plans to start manufacturing the reactors at a North American factory sometime in 2023, Mr. Flanders says.