If the fact that we’re edging ever closer to climate tipping points with irreversible implications for humanity calls for a stiff drink, you can stir yourself a martini with vodka distilled from industrial emissions. While you’re at it, unknot your muscles in athleisure created with sidetracked carbon monoxide, or pledge loyalty to your partner for better and for worse with a diamond made from repurposed greenhouse gas.
None of those products can undo the damage we’ve done to our planet—but each of them exists thanks to innovations that could. The teams behind those technologies want to use captured carbon to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and spearhead sustainable development. And, as scientists will tell you, those goals are needs rather than luxuries.
A quick and dirty history of carbon capture
“‘Carbon capture’ covers a whole bunch of things,” says Chris Bataille, an energy and climate policy analyst at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “It can be carbon capture out of the end of an industrial or power plant [that is, point-source capture] or it could be carbon from the atmosphere [i.e., direct air capture].”
The earliest version of point-source carbon-capture technology was implemented in the 1920s in natural gas reservoirs, where that gas was pumped through liquid-filled chambers to separate carbon dioxide from methane that could be sold. That was carbon capture in the highly concentrated industrial-byproduct sense: Its removal turned the gas into a commercial product, and it then became a worthless byproduct. Fossil fuel companies then found a commercial use for that CO2 in the early 1970s, when the byproduct from a natural gas reservoir and processing facility in West Texas was captured and then pumped into a depleted oil well to raise its pressure, reduce the viscosity of the remaining oil and continue with extraction.
This first technique for putting captured carbon to work, which we now know as enhanced oil recovery, is big business. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, of the 600 billion barrels of oil that have been discovered in this country, 400 billion can’t be recovered by conventional methods; enhanced oil recovery might apply to half of that otherwise-unrecoverable oil. Carbon capture, therefore, is extremely valuable to the fossil fuel industry: Enhanced oil recovery is now used to extract over 5 percent of America’s oil. “From an environmental standpoint,” the laboratory says, “it represents a practical way to recycle and utilize CO2 while reducing overall atmospheric CO2 emissions.”
The U.S. government has supported enhanced oil recovery and other industrial uses of captured carbon on a massive scale over the decades, and 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act included an increase to the existing tax credit that incentivizes carbon capture and storage for businesses. CO2 can be permanently sequestered after enhanced oil recovery by resealing the holes punched for drilling; it can also be injected into deep saline aquifers, where it’s absorbed by water under high pressure.
Direct air capture entered the carbon-capture conversation in 1999, when Klaus Lackner—then a chemical engineer at Arizona State University, now the founding director of the school’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions—argued at a U.S. Department of Energy conference that “carbon dioxide extraction directly from atmosphere would allow carbon management without the need for a completely changed infrastructure.” This method of carbon capture is possible anywhere in the world, and it collects atmospheric CO2 indiscriminately; in theory, Orca (the first large-scale carbon dioxide collection plant in the world, opened in Hellisheidi, Iceland, in 2021) could remove humans’ pollution that has been hanging around since the 18th century.
In this process, fans draw air from the atmosphere, filters with engineered chemicals concentrate the CO2 in that air, and those filters are heated to release the concentrated CO2 for sequestration or reuse. This comparatively new method is costly and energy-intensive, and its yields to date are low relative to concentrated point-source capture. Orca can capture about 4,000 tons of CO2 per year, and worldwide carbon capture and storage (most of which is point-source capture at power plants and industrial facilities) stores about 45 million tons of CO2 per year.
Critics argue that both methods of carbon capture and storage draw attention and resources from other means of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and undoing the harm we’ve done with them. That said, a small but significant portion of our energy system is going to keep depending on carbon.
“If we’re really serious about getting to net zero [greenhouse gas emissions] by midcentury—which is what’s necessary for staying between 1.5 and 2 [degrees Celsius above pre-industrial global temperatures]—you’re probably looking at an 80 to 90 percent electrified society that’s mostly fed by wind and solar, possibly some nuclear, and a bit of CCS [carbon capture and storage] just to support that variable wind and solar,” Bataille says. “But you need drop-in fuels for aircraft, you need drop-in replacements for methane to keep older buildings going, you need standby fuels to make sure hospitals keep on going [and] that the power system has backup. Things like carbon capture and storage, carbon dioxide removal and direct air capture are [ways] to get the carbon that we need to produce these concentrated fuels. Think of them as a critical, smaller part of the system that helps support the rest of the system that goes fully electric.”
From carbon in the sky to diamonds
Ryan Shearman and Dan Wojno—mechanical engineers who first met working for the jeweler David Yurman—found themselves talking about direct air capture after Shearman read Drawdown, an influential 2017 primer on reversing global warming edited by environmentalist Paul Hawken. Wojno recalls how Shearman wondered aloud about whether they could take this harmful, abundant form of carbon in the air and turn it into something beautiful and rare—a diamond. “Basically, as soon as it was spoken into being we had to do it, we couldn’t shake it,” Wojno says. They spent the next five years developing their now-patented process for turning captured carbon into the high-purity methane needed to make lab-grown, chemical vapor deposition diamonds; their company, Aether, began shipping to its first customers in 2021. “In time, our goal would then be to [also] use the methane in products with less margin and more impact—industrial materials like carbon black or graphite,” Wojno says.
Like Bataille, Shearman acknowledges that carbon factors into our future. “We’re still going to need hydrocarbons to make industrial products [like steel and ammonia]. That’s where we come in,” he says. “We’ll be able to create a future where we’ve reinvented the material stack from the bottom up and [can use captured carbon to] produce things like tires.” Wojno backs his business partner up: “If we can figure out ways to not only just capture [carbon] and pump it underground but capture it and use it for something that’s going to replace a fossil-based alternative, that’s how we get [CO2 out of the atmosphere].”
According to the International Energy Agency, there are now 27 direct air capture plants and at least 130 more in development worldwide. Aether’s co-founders can’t wait to see what other startups create with all that carbon. “I love to see more people getting out there making new products that are carbon negative; it’s going to take all of us doing different things, and weird things, until we get to the handful that really move the needle,” Wojno says.
A fashion “bug”
LanzaTech, a New Zealand-based company founded in 2005 by biologists Richard Forster and Sean Simpson, ran with the idea of using captured carbon monoxide—a pollutant that increases the global-warming potential of greenhouse gases—as a feedstock. That is, a raw material used to produce ethanol; nearly all ethanol in the world is currently produced with starch- and sugar- based feedstocks, and corn is the feedstock for most U.S.-based ethanol production. “When the company started, no one was talking about carbon beyond, really, the fossil guys who were talking about CCS: ‘Let’s keep extracting, let’s keep emitting, and let’s just bury it,’” recalls Freya Burton, LanzaTech’s chief sustainability officer. She and her colleagues wanted to develop a new way of producing fuels that didn’t harm land, biodiversity or food security. “We also wanted it to be available and point-sourced, so it was easy to access and abundant,” she says.
The two scientists hit upon the principle of using bacterial fermentation to turn carbon monoxide into ethanol with a clostridium, a type of bacteria, which they call “the bug.” “Its natural biology consumes carbon in various forms,” Burton explains. “It has the same World Health Organization safety rating as baker’s yeast, so it’s a pretty benign bacteria, and it also operates at room temperature and regular atmospheric pressure. It’s a boring, run-of-the-mill kind of bacteria that does really cool stuff.” LanzaTech’s synthetic-biology experts have mapped the bacteria’s genome, so while it produces ethanol naturally, its genes can be switched on and off to make other chemicals. “At this point we’ve demonstrated over 100 different chemicals, some of which can’t be made in nature and can only come from fossil [fuel] today,” Burton adds.
The company has a total of 1,355 patents worldwide as of this August, and 611 more are pending. Meanwhile, its clostridium has produced over 50 million gallons of ethanol, avoiding more than 250,000 tons of CO2 emissions. “We come across a lot of naysayers in the industry, and it’s very easy to say something’s not going to work, but you incrementally build a plant [to process industrial emissions], … and soon that 250,000 gets to 500,000,” Burton says. “By the end of the year, touch wood, we will be at about 500,000 tons a year of CO2 avoided with all six [of our] plants [combined].”
There’s a fashionable twist to all this. Polyester yarn spun with LanzaTech’s ethanol has been used in six fashion textile collaborations, and the company has produced capsule collections for Lululemon, Zara, Craghoppers, Adidas and H&M. While LanzaTech’s “bug” now produces raw materials for an array of industrial uses, including the production of fuels, chemicals and building materials, it’s worth pausing to consider the potential impact of producing apparel with captured carbon. As the World Bank noted in 2019, “the fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.”
Ascending from fragrance to fuels
Launched to the public in 2019 by entrepreneur Gregory Constantine and chemist Stafford Sheehan, New York’s Air Company isn’t picky about the carbon dioxide it recycles as carbon-negative alcohols and fuels. “We take CO2 from any source,” Constantine says. “Direct air, point-source capture, biogenic capture”—that is, CO2 emitted by the combustion or decomposition of organic matter—“we’re agnostic.” Sheehan’s patented technology uses electrolysis to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The oxygen is released into the air, and the hydrogen is combined with captured CO2 and a proprietary catalyst to produce impurity-free alcohols that they distribute to partners and use in their own products.
Their first offering, Air Vodka, debuted in 2019; hand sanitizer followed in 2020, and a gender-neutral eau de parfum—with bright, citrusy top notes; a botanical heart; and a musky tobacco base—became the first fragrance made with recycled carbon in 2021. Last year’s offering skipped away from consumer products and back into the sky, as the company’s brand-new Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) powered a U.S. Air Force flight; in the fall of 2022, JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic entered multiyear agreements to buy that fuel. This February, Air Company signed a $65 million contract with the Department of Defense to help the military build its own onsite SAF-production facilities.
Public appreciation for captured carbon’s potential applications has soared, Constantine says. “Awareness has increased at such an exponential rate, [and] it’s such a positive thing to see,” he says. “When we first started the business, not a soul knew what we were talking about. [A few years later] we did a popup at Selfridges for our fragrance in the U.K., and people were asking me questions about the carbon intensity, the life cycle analysis, where we’re getting our power … just regular folks off the street. I’d like to hope that companies like ours are playing a role in people’s curiosity.”
Bataille, of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, draws a line between consumer products that foster critical thinking about patterns of consumption and the sweeping institutional changes needed to effect global change, while still being realistic about our climate issues. “There are 2,500 extra gigatons of CO2 in the atmosphere that need to come back down, and luxury goods [made with captured carbon] are never going to touch that. Someday we’re going to have to get to the point where we’re industrially removing it somehow, both with natural means and physically pulling it down. We’ve put too much up, and it’s got to come down, one way or the other,” he says. “Real progress can start in interesting ways.”
Sara Nawaz, the director of research at American University’s Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy, is convinced that carbon removal will be necessary. “We’re at a point where that’s what the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] shows and what the literature and models say,” she says. “We will need carbon removal, and it’s about finding ways to politically, economically and technologically make sure it’s done well versus done in ways that cause other problems.” Nawaz admits she is skeptical of attempts to make people feel like climate change is an individual problem that individuals can “fix” by using fewer plastic bags and wearing perfume made from recycled carbon. “I don’t love the defaulting to individualist behavior as a response to climate change,” she adds. “I [do] think it’s really important and useful to have conversations about what needs to happen at a societal level and at a system level.”
Luxuries won’t save the world. But, with luck, they’ll get us talking.