Tapping into Nature: Using bioinspiration to sink carbon

Mollusks capture carbon and combine it with calcium to build strong, intricate seashells.
ShutterstockLorna Roberts
Mollusks capture carbon and combine it with calcium to build strong, intricate seashells.

This is an excerpt from the Tapping into Nature report by Terrapin Bright Green.

Carbon is an integral part of life’s "economy." Unlike the anthropogenic buildup of carbon in the atmosphere and ocean, carbon is used by organisms to accomplish functions, and it is exchanged in cyclic flows between organisms and regional ecosystems. The abundance of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) should be viewed as a ubiquitous resource and business opportunity.

Achieving goals such as New York’s 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, relative to 2010 levels, will require not only easily achievable measures, such as retrofitting existing buildings to reduce energy use-related emissions, but also new strategies such as reusing carbon to ensure a prosperous low-carbon economy. If properly funded, these additional reduction measures will come from bioinspired technology.

Selected strategies

Capture

Carbon in the form of CO2 is captured by a large subset of organisms in our ecosystems. Plants, algae and cyanobacteria — all primary producers — supply the base layer of materials, or carbon feedstocks, to the ecosystem. Similarly, technologies currently in development will allow industry to capture carbon emissions directly from waste flue streams. GHG emissions produced by our economy can be captured and integrated into our existing material stream, moving us toward a cyclic carbon economy.

Systems and materials that use waste carbon, such as Blue Planet’s carbon-sequestering concrete, will create a much needed "sink" in the global carbon cycle and represent a huge economic opportunity for companies who accomplish this feat.

Storage

The sequestration of carbon occurs in life’s materials; all organisms are composed of carbon-based materials. The temporary storage of carbon in the ecosystem varies from days to eons, but carbon always moves through a cyclic process. In contrast, most of our synthetic materials and fuel move linearly from fossilized carbon to landfills, oceans and the atmosphere. Companies and researchers are mimicking natural carbon storage by incorporating waste carbon into valuable fuels, polymers and construction materials that comprise billion-dollar markets. Artificial photosynthesis is one such innovation that is beginning to tap and even expand these markets.

Utilization

Carbon is cycled from molecule to molecule across organisms, incorporated into materials to meet various needs; the use of carbon is intimately connected to the storage of carbon. Often, stored carbon (whether from fossil or living sources) acts as a building block and as a temporary vessel for energy, allowing organisms to intake, store and later use the carbon molecules as a material feedstock and chemical energy. Innovative companies, such as Novomer, are beginning to use waste CO2-derived molecules when creating materials.

Existing products

Blue Planet Products

The production of one ton of cement typically results in the emission of about one ton of CO2. With the annual global production of cement at roughly 4 billion tons, the construction industry is a major carbon emitter.

California-based Blue Planet has developed a technology that captures CO2 from flue streams and creates carbonate minerals to replace the Portland cement or aggregate components of concrete, or to be used in other green building materials.  Their low temperature and low pressure process is inspired by the biomineralization of corals, which use dissolved CO2 to grow solid reefs. Blue Planet’s process has overcome the high capital and operating costs of similar technologies. When paired with a cement or coal plant’s flue stream, the technology can produce concrete that is carbon negative. Scaled globally, Blue Planet could sequester more than 10 billion tons of CO2 over the next four decades.

This type of technology is needed to reduce the 5 to 7 percent of global CO2 emissions attributed to cement production and beyond. Pilot scale operations are underway in the U.S.; Terrapin is working with Blue Planet to identify potential sites in New York.

Converge Polyols

Conventional plastics, such as polyethylene and polypropylene, consist of chains of carbon atoms derived from petroleum. Novomer, a chemical company based in Massachusetts and New York, has taken inspiration from the carbon cycle in photosynthetic organisms and developed technologies that capture and use waste carbon monoxide (CO) and CO2 in the creation of valuable polymers and chemical intermediates. Their proprietary catalyst enables the low temperature (~35°C/95°F) and low pressure incorporation of CO2 into the molecular backbone of plastics, resulting in a CO2/CO-derived carbon content of 50 percent.

Novomer’s Converge materials boast high performance metrics and cost competitiveness. After scaling to a production rate of thousands of tons per year, their products are being used in commercial applications by several adhesive and polyurethane manufacturers, including Germany-based Jowat AG.

Products in development

Solar fuels

The emerging technology artificial photosynthesis combines water, COand solar energy into liquid or gaseous fuel (solar fuels) in a process akin to natural photosynthesis. These high-energy molecules, such as methane and other hydrocarbons, hold the potential to seamlessly fit into our existing energy and transportation infrastructure.

With assistance from Terrapin, Jiandi Wan of Rochester Institute of Technology is mimicking not only the system but the physiology of photosynthesizers by using microfluidics and photochemistry to produce solar fuels. By emulating the small fluid channels seen in leaves, the device forces the reactants (CO2 and water) into proximity, creating a more effective platform to chemically reduce them to solar fuels. This elegant replication of photosynthesis takes advantage of readily available materials and sunlight.