Carbon is the most important and versatile element on Earth, according to carbon nanomaterials professor Andrei Khlobystov. “Carbon is very special,” Khlobystov told Dezeen. “All life on Earth is based on carbon.”
Khlobystov believes that science is well on its way to developing viable ways of removing carbon from the atmosphere and turning it into useful products.
“If you take carbon dioxide, remove oxygen atoms and add some hydrogen atoms, we can make liquid fuels that we can use to drive cars,” he said.
“You can also turn it into polymers,” he said. “You can make chemicals. We can make ethanol out of carbon dioxide and then use it to make vodka, for example.”
Ancient construction techniques can offer better ways of building zero-carbon housing than high-tech solutions, according to Pakistani architect Yasmeen Lari, who has used earth, bamboo and lime to construct thousands of dwellings.
“There are lots of ancient wisdoms and techniques that have been used over the years but I can’t imagine most so-called starchitects would even look at them,” Lari told Dezeen.
“I can’t say that I’ve done any kind of evaluation but I do know that earth has no carbon emissions,” she added. “It’s locally sourced, it’s biodegradable, it can be reused 100 times.”
Carbon has been unfairly demonised for its role in climate change, said sustainable design guru William McDonough. “Carbon is not our enemy,” he said. “It’s a friend. It’s an innocent element in all this.”
Preventing climate change is “a design project needing lots of attention,” he added. “It’s very exciting to look at how many ways we can do this, but it’s daunting”.
Carbon is an incredible resource that can be sequestered into the buildings and objects that surround us, argued designer Sebastian Cox in an opinion column.
“Carbon can be an ally in a regenerative future,” he wrote. “Carbon from photosynthesis, not from fossils, should as much as possible constitute the fabric of the things we use and buy.”
Interest in construction materials made from captured carbon has rocketed over the past couple of years according to Sophia Hamblin Wang, chief operating officer of Mineral Carbonation International.
“Holy moly,” said Hamblin Wang, whose company makes bricks and other materials from CO2 captured in factory chimneys. “It’s been tumultuous in the past two years.”
“We’re working with some of the largest companies in the world on charting their path to zero carbon. We’re helping them plan the decarbonisation of whole industries and whole facilities.”
Swiss company Climeworks builds direct air capture machines that suck CO2 from the atmosphere so it can be either stored underground or put to use.
“We capture CO2 from the atmosphere,” said Christoph Beuttler, Climeworks’ head of climate policy. “We’re mining the sky because there’s too much carbon in it. And it’s a sustainable resource.”
“Carbon is the most valuable resource in our society,” Beuttler added. “We have built our society on carbon. The problem is that it’s coming out of the ground and it adds additional carbon to the atmosphere.”
Designer Teresa van Dongen has created a library of materials that capture carbon dioxide. These include potential foods made from CO2 including spirulina, which is a carbon-guzzling algae, and methane-consuming microbial proteins.
“I absolutely do think that one day we will eat food that is produced from carbon dioxide,” said van Dongen. “It’s only a matter of time and government legislation.”
“It starts with the realization that all plant-based foods that we eat have absorbed CO2 in order for the plant to grow.”
Nori is one of several companies that is building a marketplace for carbon capture. Farmers, foresters and others who can prove they’re sequestering atmospheric carbon for at least 10 years can put it up for sale on Nori’s website.
“If we want people to do something they’re not currently doing, the best way to get them to do it is by paying them,” said Nori CEO Paul Gambill. “So what we need is a financial incentive for pulling carbon out of the air.”
Finnish company Solar Foods turns captured CO2 into protein that can be used for a variety of foods. This could feed humanity while using far less land and avoiding the carbon emissions produced by industrial agriculture.
“The key question Solar Foods is dealing with is, how do you enable a carbon-dependent society to shift to a circular carbon system?” asked Solar Foods’ CEO Pasi Vainikka.
“That’s our perspective,” he said. “It’s about enabling the end of the concept of mining [fossil fuels]. It is practising an atmospheric circular economy.”
Dutch company Made of Air makes bioplastic out of biochar made from farm and forest waste. The material offers long-term carbon sequestration, according to the company’s chief commercial officer Neema Shams.
“What if everything we’re surrounded with was removing emissions instead of releasing them?” said Shams. “Climate change is really a materials problem in that there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere. So how come we can’t turn that into our biggest resource?”
This article is part of Dezeen’s carbon revolution series, which explores how this miracle material could be removed from the atmosphere and put to use on earth. Read all the content at: www.dezeen.com/carbon.