The Carbon Solution

Andrew Himes
Jun 6, 2017 · 17 min read

Converting CO2 from Existential Threat to Global Business Opportunity

By Andrew Himes and Jeff Thiel

Imagine a world in which carbon is a source of value rather than a bane. Imagine carbon dioxide returning to pre-industrial levels. Weather displaying more predictable patterns. A thriving global economy driven by carbon.

Imagine millions of people living and working in large cities built entirely from carbon-based materials. Automobiles incorporating no steel, manufactured entirely from polymer-carbon composites, weighing one-third to one-half as much as their predecessors, made-to-order for customers, sequestering carbon rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. A 100% circular economy, with potentially every manufactured product being fully recycled when no longer needed.

Imagine a new, automated additive-manufacturing paradigm in which “factories” become service bureaus, able to create a vast array of products on demand, in any location on Earth, and then quickly shift to create different products with different materials and newly loaded data files. A world in which the transportation needs of global trade plunge by 40%, driven by in-place manufacturing, while the ships, trucks, and trains used for shipping are manufactured from carbon and lose half their weight.

Despite All Current Clean-Energy Plans, We Will Emit Far Too Much CO2 over the Next 30 Years

Despite all our efforts to date, we are not yet on a path to avert climate disaster, and time is running short. Today, CO2 levels are 410 parts per million (ppm) — far beyond the 280 ppm average for the 10,000 years prior to the Industrial Revolution, and higher than the 350 ppm that many scientists believe is necessary to stabilize the global climate. Every year, human activities emit more than 36 million tons of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Even the pledges made by countries that are party to the Paris climate accord, which primarily involves switching to clean energy sources and investing in energy efficiency, fall far short of what is needed to halt greenhouse-gas emissions. Recent political developments demonstrate that we must consider even those pledges tenuous, as shown in the chart below:

There is growing recognition among climate scientists and policy experts that we must not only decarbonize our energy system as fast as possible, but we must also find ways to permanently remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in massive quantities, and soon.

Tragedy of the Commons

The overabundance of atmospheric CO2 is a prime example of a phenomenon known as the “tragedy of the commons.” Eight billion humans now live within a shared-resource system. However, we are genetically and culturally programmed to act in our individual short-term self interests. The collective result can be to the detriment of the collective interest, and can damage or exhaust resources that everyone in the system depends upon.

Human-caused CO2 emissions are caused by industry, transportation, construction, agriculture, residential energy use, services, and various forms of energy loss from power plants and refineries. In each case, humans act on their own behalf without necessarily intending any harm. But the collective result is an existential threat to human civilization.

To break this cycle, we need a solution to climate change that converts the existential threat of CO2 into a massive global business opportunity. We need to turn opponents into allies, culprits into collaborators. We need a carbon solution.

Introducing the Carbon Solution

A good number of university researchers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, and NGO leaders have been looking for a holistic solution to global climate change that could provide a compelling business case for reducing atmospheric CO2 while creating a sustainable and thriving global economy.

We’ve noted three enabling technologies that are approaching economic feasibility, and which reflect the three parts of the Carbon Solution:

  • Carbon capture from a variety of sources, including atmospheric CO2, smokestacks, and carbon waste streams created by a variety of current manufacturing processes.
  • Carbon conversion: Processing CO2 into useful carbon-based materials — such as graphene, carbon fiber, polymers, and nanotubes — that can be used to improve or replace steel, plastics, and cement.
  • Embedding carbon in products via advanced manufacturing processes, such as 3D printing, cold spray, mass, laminated wood construction, etc., to virtually eliminate production waste; minimize transportation costs; develop lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles; and more.

Each of these technologies has developed mainly in a silo, without any particular cross-fertilization or indication that they might be part of a single, comprehensive solution to global climate change. Each individually has the potential to profoundly disrupt its own industry, with broader repercussions across the global economy. The Carbon Solution combines these technologies to consume gigatons of atmospheric CO2 and redesign the industrial ecosystem by creating a universal multipurpose feedstock for additive manufacturing.

Our objective is to change the terms of the debate about climate change. Businesses must be drawn to compete, as allies, to see who can capture the most CO2 in the most efficient, most massive, and most profitable way, rather than who can evade or cripple environmental regulations such as emissions limits or carbon tax.

The transformative core of the Carbon Solution is the idea that solving climate change requires business, driven by opportunity, to lead. Taken together, thousands of companies around the world can sequester gigatons of greenhouse gases in myriad carbon products, using advanced manufacturing technologies. To do so will require designing new carbon-based materials that can either replace or infuse carbon into the three most important manufacturing materials: steel, cement, and plastics. The implications are enormous, and offer the prospect of re-engineering the global economy to make it both sustainable and innovative while allowing it to flourish.

(Several years ago Mark Anderson, CEO of Strategic News Service (SNS), in collaboration with participants of the annual SNS FiRe conference, developed a breakthrough idea called the Carbon Trifecta, which provided a valuable impetus to our thinking. In its early articulation, the Carbon Trifecta was focused on capturing the carbon-rich flue gases from smokestacks, then using a newly invented process to convert CO2 into graphene, and then using graphene as a feedstock for additive manufacturing process like 3D printing.)

The New Carbon Future Emerges

The outlines of a new, carbon-based economy are clearly visible now, in 2017:

  • An array of new companies is entering the market with low-cost, scalable solutions for capturing CO2 from ambient air. These new direct-air carbon-capture solutions are cost-competitive with previous methods of capturing CO2 from smokestacks, while potentially avoiding significant transportation costs for the CO2 captured.
  • Dozens of different products that contain 40%-50% carbon dioxide by volume — coatings, adhesives, sealants, elastomers, foams, and binders — are now available commercially and are price-competitive. Several companies are hastening to produce carbon-based additives to polymers for use in additive manufacturing.
  • Multiple companies are now beginning to embed quantities of CO2 in cement with added properties of strength, resilience, and endurance, while reducing cement’s carbon footprint by up to 70%. From Dubai to Xian, China, to Cleveland, Ohio, additive manufacturing companies are introducing new large-scale machines with the capacity to 3D-print cars, houses, office buildings, and even skyscrapers.

Out of Thin Air

Great strides have recently been made in direct-air capture technology for production of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The DAC process involves moving air over a contact surface impregnated with a catalyst that prompts CO2 molecules to selectively bind to the surface (the adsorption phase), then applying energy to remove the CO2 molecules (the desorption phase) to yield a concentrated CO2 product. Pioneers in DAC have overcome many challenging engineering problems to make their systems produce a high volume of CO2 with a small space and energy footprint. And the modular systems can be located anywhere.

Global Thermostat direct air capture plant

Several companies are currently scaling up their operations. Global Thermostat has had a pilot plant in operation in the Bay Area since 2010 and recently secured a first customer commitment. Carbon Engineering’s facility in Squamish, British Columbia, has been in production since early 2016. Climeworks AG is gearing up to use its modular equipment to deliver carbon dioxide to a greenhouse in Switzerland, using waste heat from an incinerator to supply much of the energy for its process.

The cost of the captured CO2 using DAC has been estimated by company executives to range from $50-$100 per ton, and will certainly decline further with experience, optimization of system components, and economies of scale. If the experience curve is anything like solar or wind, the cost of captured carbon dioxide will be even cheaper soon.

The progress of DAC technology has been capital-efficient — and fast, compared with attempts to scrub carbon dioxide from power-plant flue stacks and bury it in the ground (“carbon capture and storage,” or CCS).

After decades of research and billions of dollars of investment, the US Department of Energy cites just two operating CCS projects ¬– Air Products’ Port Arthur hydrogen facility and Archer Daniel Midlands’ ethanol plant in Illinois — with pre-transportation costs in the $60-$90/ton range. Delivering the output to the customer requires building pipelines, which adds a huge infrastructure investment cost. And the output of most planned CCS projects is targeted for enhanced oil recovery, which brings with it the risk of leakage, so the benefit to the atmosphere is imprecise. By contrast, DAC has received only a cumulative $50-$100M of investment over a decade, but could offer massive benefits to the planet sooner rather than later.

Converting CO2 to a Carbon-Based Feedstock

Assuming we can suck CO2 from the air cost-effectively, how do we put it to economic use? To turn gigatons of carbon dioxide every year into durable products, we must convert it to something that can transform or replace high-volume, carbon-emitting industrial feedstocks. Today, those high-volume, high-emission industrial feedstocks are cement, steel, and plastic. Blast-furnace steel-making, cement manufacturing, and some chemical production emit CO2 directly from their production processes and indirectly through energy consumption. Combined, they’re responsible for as much as 7 gigatons of carbon-dioxide emissions every year — about 20% of the global total.

We may think of concrete as a stodgy old commodity, but these days it’s a hotbed of innovation. Companies such as Solidia Technologies, CarbonCure, Carbon8 Systems, and Calera have developed processes to embed CO2 in cement or lock CO2 in concrete during the curing process. The replacement of the commonly used Portland cement with Solidia’s calcium-silicate-based cement can reduce the carbon footprint associated with the production and use of cement by 70%.

Calera’s process for converting CO2 for use in calcium carbonate cement system

CarbonCure’s liquefied CO2 injection methods for ready-mixed and manufactured concrete production enable consumption of slightly less than one ton of carbon dioxide for every ton of cement clinker, creating a stronger concrete product while using manufacturers’ existing mixing facilities. Calera is using flue gas to create calcium carbonate, which in turn can be used to make products like concrete boards that are lighter than conventional boards, with equivalent performance. Carbon8 is using the residue from UK waste incinerators as an input to a process that binds CO2 and the residue to create a carbon-negative aggregate product that meets building codes.

Several companies have demonstrated that polymers can be produced from CO2 at production scale. Saudi Aramco purchased the Converge® polyol process from Novomer in 2016. The petrochemical giant is using the Novomer catalyst to combine CO2 with Saudi Aramco’s hydrocarbon feedstocks to create polyols for use in everyday applications: coatings for household appliances, consumer and industrial adhesives, insulation, automotive and medical applications, food packaging, and more. The Converge polyol products contain up to 50% CO2 by mass.

Newlight Technologies’ process: methane to plastic

Newlight Technologies has developed a process that combines air with methane emissions to produce a plastic material it calls AirCarbon™. By weight, AirCarbon is approximately 40% oxygen from air and 60% carbon and hydrogen from methane. Ikea has agreed to purchase half the output of the Newlight Technologies plant in the US and produce more under license for use in home furnishing products. Liquid Light is working with the Coca-Cola Co. to reduce both the environmental footprint and the cost of plant-based PET bottles using Liquid Light’s technology, which can make monoethylene glycol from carbon dioxide.

The Unique Properties of Graphene

Graphene under microscope

Graphene is an amazing and unique two-dimensional nanomaterial — an allotrope of carbon — in the form of a hexagonal lattice in which a single atom forms each apex. And it has the potential to transform many of the other materials used in industry.

First isolated from graphite in 2004, graphene has become the focus of intense research ever since. It has 200 times the strength of steel, is far more efficient than copper as a thermal conductor, and has a specific surface area like activated carbon (the kind used in filters). It is difficult to isolate as a single-layer sheet, but it can be produced in multiple layers in shapes (tubes, strings, platelets) that are also very useful.

These carbon nanomaterials can be combined with conventional building materials to improve or add new properties to them. Possible applications include replacing steel cables on suspension and cable-stayed bridges with nanotubes, which are both much stronger and do not corrode. Carbon nanotubes can also be incorporated into concrete to act as supportive fibers; the resulting concrete can handle stress and compression far better than traditional concrete alone. Carbon nanomaterials also have tremendous potential in composites made with polymers. The polymer-fiber composites can achieve the performance characteristics of steel with a fraction of the weight, which makes them a great fit for the transportation sector.

Making graphene from carbon dioxide has been demonstrated at a laboratory scale in several different processes. For example, a company in the Bay Area has developed a patented process to create carbon nanomaterials by combusting carbon dioxide and magnesium. The shape of the output can be manipulated by varying the parameters of the reaction. By using renewable energy to drive the recycling of the magnesium, the carbon footprint of the cycle can be neutral or even negative. The output of the process contains CO2 in a 4:1 ratio.

Dr. Stuart Licht’s laboratory at George Mason University has demonstrated a process to synthesize carbon nanotubes. The process transforms CO2 gas dissolved in a molten carbonate electrolyte by electrolysis at a nickel anode and at a galvanized steel cathode. The carbon materials collect on the cathode, and the oxygen collects at the anode.

Neither process produces toxic by-products, unlike the chemical vapor deposition process used for most graphene production today.

Displacing or Improving Cement, Steel, and Plastics with Carbon

Incorporating carbon nanomaterials into high-volume materials has the potential to sequester gigatons of CO2 every year. Take cement as an example. If 5% carbon nanomaterials is included in the recipe for cement, that displaces a small amount of cement, and the carbon nanomaterials themselves contain four times that much carbon dioxide from their production process. But by far the biggest impact may result from improved performance. If cement with 5% carbon nanomaterial additives enables 25% less concrete to be used in construction applications, the carbon footprint of cement production could be cut in half. In the same way, major reductions in the carbon footprint of steel and plastic could be realized.

Changes in CO2 emissions with graphene additive

The total impact of incorporating carbon nanomaterials may be much greater when we consider the second-order impacts of the resulting products. The most obvious example is vehicle light-weighting. A typical passenger vehicle weighs about 1300 kilograms, of which 60% is the weight of the steel. If a polymer-carbon composite with similar performance but only 20% of the weight replaced the steel, it could cut the vehicle’s weight by nearly one-half.

According to the US Department of Energy, reducing vehicle weight by 10% can improve fuel economy by about 7%. In 2015, the average new car in the US got about 25 miles per gallon. The lighter polymer-carbon composite vehicle would get 33 miles per gallon. If 14% of the 40 gigatons of the global annual CO2 emissions is due to transportation, then the potential reduction in emissions due to lighter vehicles could be nearly 1.4 gigatons.

Timber Innovation

Architects, structural engineers, and material scientists are leading a global revolution in our understanding of how to use wood to create large-scale buildings of up to thirty stories tall. Many of us harbor a set of assumptions about wood that may require re-examination. For example, we expect that wood may be useful for small buildings, or for houses up to two or three stories, but not strong enough for larger, taller, or more substantial structures. We believe that wood buildings are inherently more susceptible to fire than steel or concrete. We know that live trees sequester carbon, that it takes up to 50 years for many tree species to grow to maturity, so we worry about whether harvesting timber can be sustainable.

The landscape for our discussion of using timber as a way to sequester large quantities of carbon in the built environment has been reshaped by recent advances in technology, engineering and safety. It’s now possible to build much taller wood buildings using newly-developed mass timber products.

Cross-laminated Timber (CLT)

These include cross-laminated timber and nail-laminated timber for major structural components, and glue laminated timber panels for floor and wall framing. All three of these new forms of timber are created by combining smaller pieces of wood into much larger, much stronger, and much more fire-resistant shapes. Mass timber products can be built from trees that are small in diameter, fast-growing, and sustainably harvested. Best of all, timber that has been cured and processed contains close to 50% carbon, so wooden buildings can sequester quantities of carbon semi-permanently.

Mass Timber construction of an office building

According to reThink Wood, mass timber products:

  • are cost-competitive, carbon efficient, sustainable and reliable.
  • complement existing light frame and heavy timber options.
  • are suitable candidates for some construction applications that currently use concrete, masonry and steel.
  • stem from the results of scientific information and data generated from full scale fire, seismic, durability, acoustic and vibration tests being conducted internationally by researchers and engineers.
  • make taller mass timber, wood-concrete and wood-steel-hybrid buildings a reality.

Also according to reThink Wood, an impressive number of multi-story office and commercial buildings have sprung up around the world in recent years:

Finally, Congressperson Suzan Delbene (D-WA) together with co-sponsors in both houses of Congress and from both parties, has introduced the Timber Innovation Act in order to promote the research and development needed to expand the sustainable use of wood throughout the construction industry, especially in tall buildings.

Additive Manufacturing: Transforming the Economy

Once we can capture CO2 from the air and convert it to industrial feedstocks, we need to efficiently transform the feedstocks into durable, high-value products at high volumes. That’s where recent advances in manufacturing come into play — the third part of the Carbon Solution.

We’re on the cusp of a revolution in the way that we build all sorts of things, from toys to bikes, cars, homes, and even commercial buildings. New computer-driven techniques for creating 3D objects by layering-on materials are being adopted by industry in a rapidly growing number of applications, for products ranging in size from hearing aids to apartment buildings. Optimizing carbon materials for use as an input to advanced manufacturing processes could lead to near-term output of large volumes of carbon-absorbing products.

3D printing, the best-known new manufacturing technique, is being used in most industries for prototyping and in many industries for low-volume parts manufacturing. Recently, 3D printing has started to be used for fabrication of end-use products in aircraft, dental restorations, medical implants, automobiles, and even designer clothing. High-profile multinational corporations such as General Electric, Ford, and Siemens are committing to 3D printing for high-volume production. Supply-chain service organizations — UPS and others — are betting that 3D printing will become a core part of their service delivery infrastructure.

Other manufacturing techniques, such as continuous liquid interface production (CLIP), could speed up additive manufacturing with a variety of materials, reduce production costs, and enable higher-quality finishes and higher tolerances.

Dubai-based Cazza: 3D printing a house

A company called Carbon (Carbon 3D Inc.) is pushing the envelope for CLIP, a photochemical process that carefully balances light and oxygen to rapidly produce parts. CLIP works by projecting light through an oxygen-permeable window into a reservoir of UV-curable resin. As a sequence of UV images is projected, the part solidifies and the build platform rises. Once a part is printed with CLIP, it’s baked in a forced-circulation oven. Heat sets off a secondary chemical reaction that causes the materials to adapt and strengthen. The company’s Carbon SpeedCell™ is a system of connected manufacturing unit operations that enables repeatable, high-throughput production of high-tolerance, end-use parts with high-quality surface finishes.

Beyond these examples, the widespread adoption of new production processes will have a transformative impact on the manufacturing ecosystem. Today’s ecosystem is characterized by mass production of identical objects in large, centralized facilities that require high capital investment before producing at significant scale, and high-volume production runs are required to achieve low unit costs. The output is shipped long distances to reach the end-user. The future manufacturing ecosystem will be characterized by mass customization of objects in flexible, shared facilities with much smaller startup costs and economies of scale required to achieve low unit costs. These facilities can be located much closer to points of consumption.

A more distributed manufacturing ecosystem, fed by materials formed from atmospheric carbon dioxide, could be located anywhere, creating the potential for “reshoring” of manufacturing operations closer to consumers. And the environmental impact would be profound, replacing carbon-emitting materials with carbon-absorbing raw materials, fossil-fuel energy with renewable energy, and inherently wasteful “subtractive” processes with additive processes that minimize waste.

The Carbon Solution:
Vision of the Future, Platform for Collaboration

Our goal for the Carbon Solution is to complete a global development plan, identifying key partners, including companies, research and innovation hubs, impact investors, institutional funders, and government agencies.

We expect that the Carbon Solution will involve creating consortia and partnerships of companies across the three industries (carbon capture, carbon conversion, and additive manufacturing). We hope to see many carbon-based businesses changing their investment and development plans to include: carbon capture; the broad application in additive manufacturing of new carbon-based polymers; the acceleration of companies employing additive manufacturing for production rather than merely prototyping; and, finally, a shift in additive manufacturing to view graphene and other carbon-based materials as foundational feedstocks. Our long-term objective is to fully engage our industrial system to be a significant part of the solution to climate change.

Start with buildings

Our first focus will be on the built environment for two major reasons: 1) an extensive global network of “green building” professionals exists, including architects, engineers, contractors, and developers; 2) the built environment is responsible for 50% of energy consumption in the US, and presents an attractive opportunity for making large-scale, near-term impact.

The current objective of the green building movement is to create buildings that are “net-zero carbon” — not responsible for adding GHGs to the atmosphere. We think we should plan a far more aggressive objective: by 2050 the built environment should be a major annual gigaton-scale carbon sink, drawing down excess atmospheric carbon by providing a significant market for carbon-based materials.

Making this happen will require a collective impact initiative that brings together scientists and engineers, architects and designers, and manufacturers, suppliers, and developers, businesses and individuals across a range of industries.

A movement

The Carbon Solution will have to be a movement that aims to undergird the global economy while unleashing innovation and investment, transforming thousands of products, disrupting entire industries, and opening massive opportunity. Not a small undertaking.

We want to see carbon-based-energy companies and political forces that have previously resisted action to curb carbon emissions work as competitive allies rather than enemies, as they seek to perfect the profitable capture of CO2 while benefiting the planet.

Stay tuned for more news soon.

Carbon Leadership Forum

Decarbonizing the built environment

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