A case for carbon–negative materials: Made of Air
by Purva Chawla
Carbon-neutrality and climate positivity are terms that have crept into our vocabulary over the last decade or so, helping products, companies, cities, and even nations quantify their environmental efforts.
Another term which has joined the mix recently, and in the context of materials for design, is particularly relevant, is ' Carbon Negativity.'
What does it mean to be carbon-negative?
Carbon negativity is the reduction of an entity’s carbon footprint to less than neutral so that the object in question has a net effect of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere rather than adding to it. This description is synonymous with climate positivity, which refers to an activity which goes beyond achieving net zero carbon emissions, to create an environmental benefit.
In the context of climate change, and the growing awareness that the building industry contributes heavily to global emissions–the process of creating concrete alone accounts for an estimated 5 percent of human-caused carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions annually–there has been tremendous momentum to create carbon-negative materials and products. From green cement to substitutes for wood-based particle boards, to advanced self-healing materials (which either reduce CO2 generated over their lifetime or sequester it for their healing process)–carbon negativity is the motto of the day in architecture and construction.
One such carbon negative material–tangible, scalable, and versatile–is Made of Air. The radical and new biochar-based material is robust, thermoplastic, and is composed of 90% atmospheric carbon. The dense, smooth, fire-retardant material presents itself as a sustainable alternative for use in construction, interiors, furniture and more.
And how is it created?
The starting point for Made of Air is waste biomass. Biomass is an organic material which comes from plants and animals. Throughout its lifetime biomass absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, as well as sunlight, storing energy from the sun. Transforming this absorbed, fixed CO2 into a useable form is the next step. This waste biomass is baked to a stable form of carbon by pyrolysis, in an oxygen-free oven environment. This form of carbon is then mixed with a biodegradable binder to yield a moldable and carbon negative material. After being shaped into products for building facades or interiors, at the end of its lifecycle, the material can be shredded and sequestered in the earth. This cycle can be repeated continually, allowing for more and more atmospheric carbon to directed to the earth.
Made of Air was invented by Berlin-based studio Elegant Embellishments, and is spearheaded by founders Allison Dring and Daniel Schwaag. The material is being cast into faceted panels for building facades and interiors–intricate and finessed shapes that display the evolution of this material. It is also highly customizable, being a thermoplastic, the base material can be formed into custom designs for varied uses.
So where does the use of such a carbon-negative, recycled, recyclable and circularly designed material lead us? For one, using Made of Air can help architects, real estate developers, and cities achieve their climate targets by significantly reducing the CO² footprint of buildings. On the other hand, widespread use of products cast from the material could lead to a shift in perception and attitudes–the fact that all consumption isn't bad for the environment. In this case, consuming sequestered-carbon heavy products, and at a fast pace, would not be bad for the environment at all, because this consumption takes away more carbon from the environment.
The other shift is one that is already in motion–the everyman's growing belief that carbon dioxide can be a resource, and that waste-based products can be scalable, usable, advanced and highly impactful.