The next time you step on a commercial market, you may be walking on stored carbon dioxide.
Interface, a maker of commercial flooring, has developed carpet tiles that have a negative carbon footprint. Their design involves the infusion and storage of carbon dioxide, and the processes to manufacture them are more energy-efficient. Other manufacturers are betting on this innovation to produce environmentally friendly plastics, fuels, concrete, and even fish food. The concept is attractive but it faces multiple obstacles before it becomes commercially viable and widely adopted.
Video Spotlight: Carbon as a Resource at Interface
This post is based on The New York Times article, Has the Carbontech Revolution Begun?, by J. Gertner, June 23, 2021, and the YouTube video, Interface FYI|Carbon, by Interface, January 27, 2019. Image source: lucato/Getty Images.
1. What is carbontech? Give some examples of products involving this concept.
Guidance: Carbontech, or carbon utilization, involves the use or recycling of carbon oxides to make value-added products. The products “store” the pollutants, and the fabrication processes used to make these products add no emissions. Carbon neutrality remains a long-term goal for many businesses, but being carbon negative is already a reality for some innovators like Interface. Besides carpet tiles, examples of products that incorporate carbon dioxide include concrete, fuels, sneakers, yoga mats, vodka, and tires.
2. How does Interface achieve negative carbon emissions at its production facilities?
Guidance: Everything from the material sources to the production processes had to be reimagined to create the product. The product design incorporates the 3Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle. REDUCE: less material is used to make the carpet (value analysis). REUSE: the product is made of 1) recycled components for the backing, filler, and yarns; 2) biomaterials such as forestry byprodructs and carbon-rich plants; 3) latex containing carbon dioxide; and 4) salvaged nylon. RECYCLE: it is unclear whether the product is designed for recycling, but John Bradford, the chief science-and-technology officer, claims that almost everything is recycled at the carpet plants. In addition, the manufacturing processes are energy-efficient with the use of renewable sources of energy, lower temperature for vinylized carpet filler, and efficient machinery.
3. What are the threats to the growth of carbontech products?
Guidance: There are several threats that may limit or slow the growth of carbontech. The most obvious one is cost. For example, it may take decades for the cost of the bacteria-made fuels to be close to that of fossil fuels. The new products cannot compete on the basis of cost, and their makers need to sell features other than comparable functionality to appeal to consumers. Another threat is the potential for technical glitches before these technologies become widely accepted. Any failure may trigger skepticism and postpone adoption. Ironically, the increased demand for CO2 puts less pressure on fossil fuel producers and may thus delay the construction of proper infrastructure to facilitate the capture and transportation of CO2 from the emission sources to places where it can be buried or processed. Finally, the design and manufacturing of products containing CO2 is not enough. Reliable value chain networks need to be developed, and accounting systems tracking the environmental impact of these products (use of renewable energy sources, exhaust fumes, waste carbon streams, etc. ) must be created and audited.