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The Shoes With No (Carbon) Footprint

Energy company NRG has made a pair of sneakers from carbon emissions

(NRG)
smithsonian.com

There are shoes made from recycled tires, shoes made from recycled yoga mats, even shoes made from recycled trash fished out of the ocean. But the greenest shoe of all may be this new sneaker made from recycled carbon dioxide emissions.

Created by energy company NRG in conjunction with the product management firm 10xBeta, the “shoe without a footprint” looks more or less like any ordinary white sneaker. But some 75 percent of the shoe’s material is made from gaseous waste captured from power plants and turned into a polymer. Sorry, sneakerheads, these aren’t for sale—there are only five pairs, and they were created to promote the Carbon XPrize, a four-year competition NRG is sponsoring to develop the most innovative products using carbon emissions.

“Shoes serve functional purposes; they serve fashion purposes,” says Gin Kinney, vice president of NRG Business Solutions. “And shoes are relatable and produced on a massive scale. That relates to our end goal in solving for carbon emissions—reuse carbon emissions in viable, everyday products that can be scaled for larger applications.”

The XPrize competition, launched last year, involves 47 teams from seven countries around the globe. The teams will spend the next two years developing their products, and will then be winnowed down to 10 finalists. These finalists will be able to test their products in real power plants under real conditions. They’ll be judged on how much carbon dioxide they convert as well as the utility of the final product. The winners will be announced in 2020 and awarded shares of a $20 million grand prize.

Team projects range from building materials to renewable fuel to animal feed, all made from emissions.

carbon-dioxide-shoe-2.jpg
(NRG)

Ever since carbon capture technologies became feasible and affordable, scientists and environmentalists have been working to figure out what to do with all that carbon dioxide. Some approaches involve turning the carbon dioxide into forms that are more easily stored, like stone, simply to keep it from going into the atmosphere. But many others are trying to give the carbon dioxide a second, useful life. Earlier this year we wrote about a Canadian company turning carbon emissions into fuel by splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen and combining the hydrogen with the carbon dioxide. Recently, Stanford researchers demonstrated that they could make plastic out of carbon dioxide mixed with plant material. There’s also been promising research on turning carbon into concrete, whose production is typically a huge producer of greenhouse gases. UCLA scientists produced the carbon concrete in a lab, and formed it into tiny cone shapes with a 3D printer. It’s only a proof-of-concept at this point, but many believe it will be scalable in the near future. Other companies and scientists are pursuing similar lines of research, including several of the teams involved in the XPrize competition.

Given that NRG is an energy company engaged in fossil fuel energy production, it obviously benefits from making the process cleaner, rather than seeing it replaced entirely, as some environmentalists would prefer.

“Despite the massive gains in renewable energy, the reality is that we’ll still need to use fossil fuels to generate the volume of energy that society needs,” Kinney says. “Technologies like carbon capture and carbon conversion play a vital role in helping us safely and reliably deliver energy all the while working towards emissions reduction goals. If we’re able to capture emissions and turn them into a highly usable, mass market product, that’s a great benefit to society.” 

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