Even after COVID-19 is controlled, climate change, growing resistance to antibiotics and lack of clean water will still be waiting for us. We need research that could change… everything. That’s what Blue Sky is all about.
What’s more expensive—dealing with climate change, or not dealing with climate change? The Global CO2 Initiative is trying to break the trade-off by making carbon-negative manufacturing pay. The effort views the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a resource to be mined from smokestacks or even the air and used to make a variety of products from clothing and shoes to concrete and packaging. The project aims to reduce the equivalent of 10% of current atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions annually by 2030. Volker Sick, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of the initiative, explains the concept.
About the podcast: The Blue Sky podcast is a limited series from RE: Engineering Radio and the University of Michigan College of Engineering. It delves into the four research projects funded as part of the $6 million Blue Sky initiative. Launched in 2018, the initiative gives research teams the freedom to try daring ideas, show results and build momentum to secure further research investment in their efforts to solve global problems. Season 1 is an introduction to each project.
Nicole: Welcome to the Blue Sky Podcast. In this episode, we’ll be re-imagining carbon. I’m your host, Nicole Casal Moore.
Jim: And I’m Jim Lynch.
Nicole: Today, we’re talking about the Global CO2 Initiative. It’s headed by Volker Sick, a professor of mechanical engineering here at the University of Michigan. This is an initiative that’s trying to fight climate change.
Jim: Well, at least they picked a big target. Year after year, we’re getting these climate reports. Every week, it seems like ,the effects of having too much carbon in the atmosphere are on a biblical scale—storms and floods and droughts and fires.
Nicole: As we are recording this it’s December of 2019 and the UN Climate Conference in Madrid just ended.
Jim: With very little to show for it.
Nicole: Yeah, I saw a headline in USA Today that says, “The point of no return is no longer over the horizon. UN chief delivers dire climate change warning.”
Jim: One of the funny things about environmentalism—it’s more sad than funny—is at least conventionally was that it was about saving the planet. But as Volker mentions in this interview, acting on climate change is really about saving ourselves.
Volker Sick: I think in general, most people do not appreciate how nature works in its details. At some point, with the levels of CO2 that are in the atmosphere, it creates a self-propagating process that leads to ever increasing temperatures. The planet doesn’t have a problem with global warming. It has demonstrated abundantly that it can handle much higher temperatures. It’s just that humans and a lot of other living beings cannot handle it. And therefore, in a matter of self-interest, humanity needs to act.
Nicole: The climate we’ve got here on Earth is suited for us. And if it changes, yeah, it’s not the planet that’s going to pay the price.
Jim: And Professor Sick thinks he has the answer?
Nicole: Well, he thinks this project could be part of the answer. There’s not going to be just one thing that gets us through this one.
Volker Sick: It’s more like a shotgun approach, right? You need multiple approaches to solve the problem. And if you look at decarbonizing industry, decarbonizing the energy supply stream, you need various avenues. We need new techniques to provide the energy we use, that do not release carbon dioxide. But we also need to remove some of the carbon dioxide that’s already out there. And just burying it alongside with the money it takes to bury it, is not a good solution, right? So, if we can take that carbon dioxide and turn it into products such as concrete, fuels, plastics, other chemicals, then that seems to be a really good value proposition. There is this abundance of CO2 in the atmosphere everywhere. So, let’s harvest that. And that’s what we are doing.
Jim: Harvesting the carbon in the atmosphere.
Nicole: And I think it’s noteworthy that he’s using the word “harvest” as a verb.
Jim: We’ve been so busy talking about carbon as a pollutant. We’ve never really considered that it could be a resource.
Nicole: Yeah, it’s more: “here’s something you can do,” rather than: “here’s something you can not do.” The people who are collaborating with the Global CO2 Initiative have some surprising perspectives. They came together at a workshop in April of 2019. I stopped by and one of the people I talked with was Lorraine Smith.
Lorraine Smith: Yup, so my name is Lorraine Smith and I’m an associate director at Volans. I’m the outlier on the team. So Volans is a small shop based in London, UK.
Nicole: She envisions a wholesale reframing of the problem in a way that might sound counterintuitive at first. At least it did to me.
Lorraine Smith: So if we look at the action that specifically businesses have taken but governments and others as well, up until give or take five years ago, the vast majority would have been on very important, useful activities like eco-efficiency, energy efficiency, to a degree shifting to renewables and really starting to understand the emissions of a given organization or product or process. The way in which companies organize themselves around that was to sort of start to think about ways to reduce. And the goal of that really was efficiency reduction, maybe even cost savings—not bad things but nowhere near sufficient to address the problem. And frankly not a paradigm that will get us to where we need to be.
Jim: So emission reduction is not going to be enough. That doesn’t sound particularly radical.
Nicole: In and of itself, it’s not. But her broader context is that a lot of the rhetoric around climate change has been about how bad we humans are. How bad business is and agriculture is and growth is. And it can be so overwhelming and fill us with so much guilt that we don’t even know where to begin. And so we just don’t. Whether it’s true or not, this kind of negative framing can feel hostile at a time when we need people to get on board with this.
Jim: Is there a positive way of framing that?
Nicole: She says there is—if we learn to pull carbon out of the air.
Lorraine Smith: The neat thing is, it’s actually a really beautiful concept in my opinion, in that we stop fighting. We stop thinking we need to do less of things because we’re doing bad things. And we start doing more of things because we’re doing good things.
Jim: So instead of rich industrialized countries must curb their irresponsible economies, it’s rich industrialized countries…?
Nicole: Maintain strong economies by changing their industries to be carbon negative. It’s not that we need to make our economy smaller. It’s that we need to change the economy. And also countries that are less industrialized could also build carbon negative industries.
Jim: Sounds very utopian.
Nicole: I know it. But I’m telling you, there were a hundred people from all over the world who thought it could be done and had ideas about how to do it. I was dubious until I went to this workshop and saw the people in this room
Jim: All right, so, how is this going to work? You pull carbon out of the air?
Nicole: Essentially, yes. It might be easiest to start at the smokestacks. Some technologies benefit from air that has extra carbon dioxide in it. So they can partner with industries that produce a lot of emissions and then they can pull carbon out of the exhaust before it even hits the atmosphere.
Jim: Instead of putting a carbon capture device in the smokestack, you add a new production line?
Nicole: That’s the idea.
Jim: Is that right? What can they make?
Nicole: The thinking is anything that has carbon in it—fuels, plastic, clothing, shoes, toys, detergent, medical devices. One tech startup said they could literally make Nike Airs out of air.
Jim: It’s a little too on the nose. That’s amazing. I mean, it doesn’t seem like there’s a product out there that couldn’t be made from this. How exactly is the Global CO2 Initiative going to make this happen? Are they making the gadgets that would run this carbon capture production line?
Nicole: In the near term I’d say they’re not directly building production lines but the project is a mix of carbon capture and use technologies and evaluation tools for those technologies. One example—there’s a researcher here at U-M who has a plan to make concrete that absorbs carbon dioxide. And that is particularly exciting because today the process of making concrete releases a lot of CO2. Overall, though, I’d say that the initiative’s doing big picture work to figure out what it’s going to take to make carbon recycling a thing. It’s wonky work. I warn you, but I think I need to go there.
Jim: All right, let’s see where this goes.
Volker Sick: So, one of the things we do very prominently is provide the tools for researchers, for investors, for policymakers to assess whether a technology is actually carbon negative. And at the same time, to make it feasible in the long run, whether it’s dollar positive.
Jim: All right, let’s define those things. Carbon negative: removing carbon from the atmosphere during the manufacturing process. That one, I think I’ve got. Dollar positive: you can make a profit on it. Slogan-y but not that wonky.
Nicole: Oh we’re just getting to the wonky part yet.
Jim: Mmh, waiting for the wonky part.
Nicole: So you’re a company with an idea for either a process that pulls carbon out of the air or a product that you can make from that carbon. But how do you know if it’ll work?
Jim: Usually it’s some sort of complicated chemical formula.
Nicole: Yes, but that’s only part of the equation. You need to factor in the energy. You’ll need to put your process in place or to make your product. And that includes the materials, where they come from and the emissions all along the way. It’s called life cycle analysis or LCA for short.
Jim: You do a life cycle analysis to see whether at the end of the day, you’re going to be pulling more carbon out of the air than you put in.
Nicole: Exactly, but then you’ve got to do what’s called a techno-economic assessment to see if you’re going to be able to make money. There’s two sides here.
Jim: This is the wonk.
Nicole: Techno-economic assessment is also called TEA. That looks at how much it’s going to cost you to make your product. How much you can sell your product for and whether your company is sunk before it even gets started. Sorry, I went into wonk mode again.
Jim: I’ll see if I got this. So LCA is carbon negative?
Jim: TEA, dollar positive.
Nicole: You got it.
Jim: I know that being dollar positive is a big deal because if you don’t need subsidies to help pull carbon out of the air then we can harness economic markets in a positive way. We can do more to fix the carbon imbalance than we could with only government funding, right?
Nicole: This is—nothing’s going to change unless our economy can change to support this.
Jim: You don’t need to shout at me. I’m on your side. How much closer can this get us to where we need to be?
Nicole: I asked Volker about that.
Nicole: Just how much could this help? How much CO2 do you imagine you all could suck out of the atmosphere and turn into useful products?
Volker Sick: So realistically there seems to be a chance to utilize up to four gigatons of carbon dioxide a year.
Jim: Four gigatons?
Volker Sick: If you compare it to how much CO2 we release every year it’s just about 10% of that.
Jim: 10%, that’s it?
Nicole: The number isn’t impressive on its face. I get that and Volker gets it too.
Volker Sick: The question could then be, is it significant what we do? And the simple answer is yes, because it contributes to the accelerated decrease of our carbon dioxide emissions. We are certain that we will do better than the status quo and that’s going to be a big achievement.
Jim: That’s good. I like that.
Nicole: But you’re still not sold.
Jim: I’m still not sold.
Nicole: Okay, try thinking of it as a literal turnaround. Industry has been strictly emitting since its inception. And we are talking about creating a sector that does the opposite—that absorbs. And while 10% of global emissions seems small on a year to your balance sheet, over the arc of history, it would be huge. Lorraine thinks it’s a linchpin.
Lorraine Smith: We’ve gotten really good at emissions measuring and emissions reduction.
Jim: Wow, what did she just say? I think there’s probably a lot of folks out there who disagree that we’re really good at emissions reduction.
Nicole: I thought the same thing about it and so I did some research. The deal is that we could definitely be better but we’ve made some really remarkable gains over the past few decades. Couple examples: since the 1960s gas furnaces have gone from 60% efficient up to 98%. Average gas mileage for passenger cars has doubled since the 1970s.
Jim: But at the same time, we’ve developed more ways to use energy things like computers or smartphones, data centers, automation. We’re not very good at banking savings, I guess.
Nicole: We certainly aren’t. As gas mileage gets better, cars get bigger. And then you’ve got to add population growth. So sure we’re more efficient, but energy use keeps rising. Let’s get back to Lorraine ’cause she does make a really good point.
Lorraine: We’re missing the other piece of the equation, which is so key. And frankly, nature has been doing it for 3.8 billion years and industry’s just catching up. Industry’s like, “Oh yeah! When you emit something and you have no way to bring it back into the natural cycle, you create an imbalance—a distortion. So in a way what these methodologies are doing is catching up with nature and saying, “Oh wait, industry, we need a better way to understand not just what we’ve emitted, but what we’re pulling down and how long we’re sequestering it in soils or materials.
Jim: We need to think like the trees.
Nicole: The Lorax would be proud.
Nicole: Industry has never taken a serious look at this gap before.
Nicole: Researchers have been exploring various carbon sequestration approaches. But it’s so complicated because you have to factor in for how long the carbon is being sequestered. We have to take the long view, the lifecycle view. For example trees sound like a great solution until you have wildfires. And of course they also decompose into CO2 at the end of their lives. And the cycle starts again.
Jim: Maybe if you’d asked me a couple of years ago, I would’ve probably said, “Yeah, it’s hopeless.” But things change. I have a 2-year-old son now and it’s sort of not convenient any longer for you to be passe about it in a lot of ways. I guess I rely on people like Volker Sick to come along and give me ideas to get behind, give me things that I can support. So the big idea here is to make industry compatible with the environment when it’s been viewed as antithetical since the environmental movement began.
Nicole: That’s a Global CO2 Initiative in a nutshell.
Jim: Can we go back to something you were talking about before? This was the making of Nike Airs out of air.
Jim: How does that actually work?
Nicole: Let me turn it over to Heidi Lim. She’s the chief of staff at the start-up company Opus 12. She used that line in her presentation and we caught up with her after the session to find out more.
Heidi Lim: I’ve never done a radio show. This is interesting. We’re making an electrochemical device that takes carbon dioxide and water as inputs and renewable electricity to split up those molecules and make different petrochemical building blocks. So basically, basic chemicals that would normally come today from petroleum, we can derive from carbon dioxide.
Nicole: Wow, so instead of taking it out of the ground, you’re taking it out of the air.
Jim: That is weird—mining the air.
Nicole: It’s totally Sci-Fi. Have you read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy?
Nicole: It’s about colonizing and terraforming Mars. When the first colonists arrived, they use air mining to gather some of the things they need, like oxygen and water, which are fundamental to everything else they do there.
Jim: We get to our Martian future by starting the terraforming right at home.
Nicole: If terraforming is a strategy to make a planet habitable, it’s not so surprising that we would start it right here.
Jim: Wouldn’t that just be Earth forming then?
Nicole: That’s what Terra means, right?
Jim: Yeah, thanks. Back to the present, what kind of petrochemicals come out of this sneaker manufacturing from air?
Nicole: They’re starting with ethylene, which is the building block of the world’s most popular plastic, polyethylene
Jim: Aah, the stuff that’s all over the ocean.
Nicole: It’s in a lot of products that can be used in very sustainable ways too. And Opus says that when manufactured their way, assuming that the electricity comes from renewable sources or nuclear power, the reduction of carbon in the atmosphere is amazing.
Jim: That, my friend, is a big assumption—renewable sources or nuclear power.
Nicole: I’m glad you called that out. Different power sources are the only way we can ensure that the process of manufacturing these products doesn’t cancel out the carbon that goes into them. Let’s hear more about the math from Heidi.
Heidi Lim: For every ton of ethylene that we can produce with CO2 three tons of CO2 is actually consumed. And two tons of CO2 is actually avoided in emissions because of the two that would normally be released with conventional processes.
Nicole: I see. So it’s doubly helpful?
Jim: Normally we’d emit two tons of carbon dioxide making one ton of ethylene but instead Opus 12’s technology would avoid those emissions and also remove three tons of carbon dioxide in the bargain.
Jim: What all can you make with polyethylene other than Nike Airs and plastic bags?
Nicole: So it’s in other single use plastics like detergent bottles and medical devices, but it’s also in longer-term things like toys and car parts. Actually, she didn’t limit the technology to making ethylene.
Heidi Lim: A lot of the things around you in your built environment, like your shoes, are today derived from petroleum. And I think a lot of people don’t realize that every day you’re using shampoo that has surfactants that are made out of petroleum. And you’re wearing polyester. You’re using something that was derived from petroleum. Essentially any of those products we can make out of CO2. Like, I’m really looking forward to being able to wear clothing that’s carbon negative.
Jim: Soon, H&M will have a conscious polyester line, in addition to organic cotton.
Nicole: It could happen.
Jim: How did they propose to accomplish this carbon alchemy?
Nicole: Well, they tell me it’s pretty ordinary electrochemistry. They’ll use electricity to break up both carbon dioxide and water, using the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen to make different kinds of carbon chains—which are useful for different applications. And they can use them in different things.
Jim: Oh yeah, that’s pretty ordinary electrochemistry.
Nicole: 101! Breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen is actually well-established. The device that does it is called an electrolyzer.
Nicole: Opus 12 has developed a new membrane that can turn an electrolyzer into a device for splitting carbon dioxide into carbon and oxygen. Here’s Heidi, again.
Heidi Lim: It’s kind of like thinking about changing out like the Intel chip inside of a laptop. And so because we have a partnership with the largest manufacturer of these electrolyzers, we can actually leverage their resources and their knowledge in making these systems while we can focus on our core technology.
Jim: All right, so they break the molecules down. Then what?
Nicole: They also had to develop a new catalyst. And they needed this to coax the carbon and hydrogen, which make up plastics and fuels, to recombine into useful molecules.
Jim: Now, like we talked about before, carbon-free electricity seems critical to the negative carbon footprint of this technology. And neither renewables nor nuclear are known for being cheap, so…”
Nicole: This is why the techno-economic assessment is so important.
Jim: All right.
Nicole: In fact, companies are already trying to do it. Heidi said they’ve been running their own versions of these at Opus 12 and they’re using what they learned to optimize their process and make their case to outside investors.
Jim: This is why they needed the workshop right? Everyone is doing their own calculations, which are problematic because they’re not just reinventing the wheel, they may also bring different assumptions to it. And that makes it hard to compare apples to apples.
Nicole: Yes. And our intrepid producer, Kate McAlpine, asked Volker about this at the workshop.
Kate: Would you say that you’re trying to set a standard?
Volker Sick: I think that’s up for debate. What we heard today, certainly, points to a significant need for something that we would probably want to call a standard. There are questions about who should define it and who should enforce it. And I think it’s at the minimum necessary that everybody is transparent about how they do their analysis and how they report their findings, so there’s no hidden message. So there’s no hidden agenda and people can really truly compare one product over the other.
Nicole: If a carbon negative sector of the economy is going to be fair, everyone needs to be playing by the same rules.
Jim: So this team is drafting tools for measuring their environmental impact and profit potential, which companies can adopt voluntarily for now.
Nicole: Right. And eventually they could also be adopted by governments. This workshop was really about getting some of the major players looking at the potential of the carbon negative industry into the same room and talking with one another about how to move this forward.
Volker Sick: Obviously we were hoping for exactly this—the buzz, the continuing conversation. People have met each other here for the first time, having known each other’s writings but had never had the chance to talk in person. So making all these connections is one of the things that I was looking forward to most. People are engaged. People want to talk. I think we could stay here overnight and the momentum would not slow down.
Jim: Maybe that’s what we need—a lock-in slumber party with these hundred people trying to tackle just 10% of climate change. This is good stuff. I look forward to the next installment.
Nicole: Thanks! I’m hoping it will make these high level ideas more concrete. That pun was intended. We are actually gonna be visiting the lab of Victor Li, the professor who is making concrete that sequesters carbon. Until then I’m your host, Nicole Casal Moore.
Jim: And I’m Jim Lynch signing off on this episode of the Blue Sky Podcast.