Made of Air
You may not have heard much of Made of Air yet but we’re pretty sure it’s going to be on the tip of many-a-tongue in the near future. As material inventions go, it’s right up there with some of the most seemingly outlandish, yet brilliantly clever you’re ever likely to witness. It’s defined as a Carbon-negative building product made of atmospheric CO2. Put simply, it turns harmful Carbon Dioxide into a useful and harmless building material! This genius material is the brainchild of Allison Dring and Daniel Schwaag, who founded their company Elegant Embellishments in London back in 2006. A move of headquarters to Berlin has given them a space to development their practice as “inventors of climatic building elements and stewards of the environment” and with it, amongst other things, Made of Air. We caught up with them to find out more about the material development.
JB: How would you describe your materials?
MOA: We tend to use the term “de-cycled” when describing our material.
You hear a lot about re-cycling when it comes to use, especially as it delays a material’s inevitable trip to the landfill. But since 2009, when we started looking at this issue, we’ve set out to invent a material or process that makes that trip to the landfill better for the environment. Made of Air is making a material out of existing CO2 in the atmosphere, so the term de-cycling refers to the carbon taken from the air, used as a product, and then put back in the earth. It’s technically a linear process, the opposite of the process of burning fossil carbons into the atmosphere.
JB: What is involved in the process of making your surface materials? How exactly is it made?
MOA: The over‐ abundance of CO2 in the atmosphere is a direct result of the carbon cycle being incomplete. Burning subterraneous carbon creates fossil fuels that emit carbon in the form of CO2 into the atmosphere. Plants absorb CO2 naturally, and are known as "carbon sinks" but given the magnitude of the problem, our land mass is limited to absorb enough CO2.
Made of Air's material is composed of CO2 from the atmosphere that has been absorbed by waste biomass during its lifetime. When the plant material dies, it naturally releases CO2 back into the atmosphere. By baking it in a controlled oven, the CO2 converts to a solid carbon char‐that is stable for millennia. This solid material is 80% pure carbon from the atmosphere and converts greenhouse gases into a usable material.
The material compound is made of so much atmospheric carbon it actually generates negative carbon emissions.
JB: So are there specific ‘waste’ materials involved in the process?
MOA: Our compound is made of carbon char and series of binders, which are also plant-based. Any biomass can be converted, so long as it has photosynthesised in its lifetime. We typically look at waste streams from or surrounding cities such as orchards that are regularly pruned, or agricultural waste after harvest. In Berlin, there is a substantial volume of Christmas trees collected from roadsides every year. The more local the biomass waste is to the making of the material, the better.
JB: Wow! It must take a lot of old Christmas trees and the like, how do you obtain these materials?
MOA: Currently we are working with a partner supplier who converts the waste biomass into char. Our plan for the next 2 years is to produce our own char to streamline the production process.
JB: It’s an amazing material with so much potential, how far do you think you can go with it? What impact could it have?
MOA: The material has the potential to replace existing CO2-producing materials like MDF boards or thermoplastics in the construction industry, which makes up around 40% of the global manufactured goods.
As an additive to other materials, it scales much bigger, with just 10% employed in all manufactured goods, it is possible to sequester ca. 3.6Gt Carbon from the atmosphere annually. To put this into perspective, the IPCC states that in order to meet the 2°C target set in the Paris Accord, we must reduce 2-10 Gt CO2 per year.
JB: Have you ever had to make alterations in how you produce your materials i.e. in order to make volume / changing or adapting materials for a client specification?
MOA: As inventors of the material, and given the early phase of its development, we are able to customise the formula for various applications. As a material compound, it can already be produced in different forms, shapes, from sheathing boards to tabletops, to cladding panels. As an additive, it can be applied in existing products to replace fillers, for example in plasterboard, or filled polymers for injection molding, etc.
JB: Have you found clients seeking you out to use your materials because of the recycling element?
MOA: Our clients are interested in the narrative of the material and its ability to be formless. As a carbon negative material it can act as an agent to cut down the carbon footprint of a project, or it can be active in aestheticising or formalising the CO2 in our atmosphere, on a large scale. But this is just the beginning!
This article was originally published by Material Lab