Is Carbon Dioxide the New Black? Yes, If These Fabric-Designing Scientists Have Their Way

Is Carbon Dioxide the New Black? Yes, If These Fabric-Designing Scientists Have Their Way

The entrepreneurs Tawfiq Nasr Allah (left, standing) and Benoit Illy (right, sitting down) at Fairbrics' lab in Clichy, France.

Courtesy of Fairbrics

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 upFairbrics with material scientist Benoît Illyin 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, " 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 around20 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."

Beyond Fashion

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."

Sarah Philip
Sarah Philip is a London-based freelance journalist who writes about science, film and TV. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahph1lip.
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