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Carbontech, the trillion-dollar circular market opportunity

Products made from embedded CO2, from soap to fuels to vodka, are great examples of the circular economy in action.

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's Circular Weekly newsletter on the latest circular economy news, running Fridays. Subscribe here.

My mail last week included a delivery from the future, in the form of a bar of soap. The soap looks and smells normal, but it isn’t. It’s my first carbontech purchase — meaning the first product I’ve bought that was engineered from carbon pollution that had been captured from the air. I hope it won’t be my last, because carbontech can become a trillion-dollar industry that helps reverse climate change. Along the way, it stands to become a mainstay of the circular economy, which, after all, is about creating value from waste.

One way of looking at climate change is to say that the 7 billion or so humans on Earth have screwed up the planet’s carbon cycle. For billions of years, carbon flowed back and forth between the oceans, atmosphere, living things, soils and rocks.

Then came the Industrial Revolution. Ever since, we’ve been releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than plants and the other components of the cycle can absorb. 

We need to bring this cycle back into balance if we’re to avoid catastrophic changes to our climate. Reducing emissions is essential, but the past decade has shown that reductions aren’t happening anywhere near fast enough. 

This is where circularity comes in. If five key sectors — steel, plastic, aluminum, cement and food — were to adopt circular practices, a whopping 9 billion tons of emissions would be saved in 2050, according to a new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. If new kinds of circular economies based around carbon are added to the mix, the savings could be far greater.

If five key sectors — steel, plastic, aluminum, cement and food — were to adopt circular practices, a whopping 9 billion tons of emissions would be saved in 2050.
The soap is an example of one of those new economies. It includes a salt made from carbon dioxide captured from heating systems. In this carbon cycle, carbon dioxide is pulled from the air that flows out of heating units, used to make the soap and, once the soap is washed away, remains locked into the salt, which is harmless. The manufacturer, a Canadian company named CleanO2, has installed 10 units that it says will each capture 4-6 tons of carbon dioxide annually.

A shipping container outside the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany demonstrates another new kind of carbon cycle. Inside the container is a machine that sucks in carbon dioxide and water vapor, which it then splits into hydrogen and carbon monoxide. From there the gases are turned into useful hydrocarbons, including gasoline and diesel. When these fuels are burned, carbon dioxide is released back to the atmosphere, completing the cycle. If the machine is run by zero-carbon energy, it basically conjures fuel from thin air — the ultimate circular technology

A couple of caveats before we go on. This is a pilot device: It isn’t about to fuel your next road trip, let alone a long-haul flight. Last month, the project team project announced that the machine can produce around 2.5 gallons of fuel per day — enough to drive a typical car for around 60 miles. What’s more, the economics are uncertain. In theory, the machine could be scaled up to produce much larger quantities of gasoline, as well as jet fuel. The challenge is finding a way to do so that doesn’t make the fuels prohibitively expensive.

Still, I’m hoping that the Karlsruhe device, like CleanO2’s soap, is a step toward a future in which plastics, fuels and even food are made from carbon dioxide pulled from the air. There are already startups using carbon dioxide to create everything from palm oil substitutes to protein supplements to vodka. (This industry’s name — carbontech — was coined by Carbon180, a think tank that has led the way in promoting the technologies, which it estimates can be used to compete in global markets worth almost $6 trillion [PDF].)

There’s an awful lot we don’t know about carbontech at this point, including the question that likely will make or break the sector: Can its products compete economically with fossil fuel-based incumbents?

But there is no doubt that it’s worth trying to make that happen. One study of the technology (PDF) found that by 2030 the carbontech industry could be consuming more than 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, almost 20 percent of the current global emissions caused by burning fossil fuels. At the same time, the industry would create valuable products, jobs and returns to investors. That’s a future I’d like to hear more about. 

Carbon-curious? In addition to sessions on circularity, energy and transportation, VERGE 19 from Oct. 22 to 24 in Oakland, California, will feature the first VERGE Carbon conference.

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