How this scientist is recycling carbon dioxide into a do-good gas
Carbon dioxide gets a bad rap.
Out of all of the waste gases produced by human activity — manufacturing, agriculture, electricity production, transport — carbon dioxide is the largest byproduct and is fingered as the leading culprit behind global warming.
In actuality, it accounts for 76 percent of all annual global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
But Emily Cole does not concentrate on the negatives. The 32-year-old scientist has created technology that would recycle carbon dioxide into something extremely useful.
Cole is cofounder and chief science officer of Liquid Light. The startup is pioneering a process to convert carbon dioxide gas into a compound that can be used to make consumer goods.
She founded the startup in 2009 and immediately got to work developing technology to capture carbon dioxide and recycle it.
“At this time, waste carbon dioxide is captured and sequestered,” said Cole. This means the gas is collected from facilities like industrial plants or manufacturing sites, compressed in pipelines and then injected into rock formations deep underground.
Emily Cole, co-founder of Liquid Light.
“Instead of storing it, we are utilizing it and converting it into something of value,” she said.
Liquid Light is the first company that’s developed a catalyst (a combination of water, sun, electricity and other substances) to make other substances from carbon dioxide.
“We take carbon dioxide from its source [including power plants or plants], add electricity and water to it, and create liquid fuels and chemicals like ethylene glycol and glycolic acid,” said Cole.
Those chemicals could eventually replace oil in everyday consumer products like plastic bottles, carpets, antifreeze, even facial creams.
The advantages are manifold: “We reduce our dependence on oil, which isn’t renewable,” said Cole. “We make these products with reduced carbon dioxide emissions and we could possibly lower the production costs.”
Cole has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Princeton University. But her passion goes back to her high school days in Texas.
“I had a great teacher who really got me curious and excited about chemistry,” she said.
At Princeton, she collaborated with Professor Andrew Bocarsly, who’d already been working on ways to recycle carbon dioxide. “His project was stalled for many years since there was not lots of interest or funding for this,” she said. But she saw potential, and worked to take his research one step further.
After graduating from Princeton, Cole attracted investment from venture capitalists to start her company and develop the technology. (While she declined to say how much Liquid Light has increased, CrunchBase reports it has received $23.5 million in several rounds of funding.)
Liquid Light, which now has a team of 12, hopes to pilot the technology next year and then license it for commercial use.
Big companies have already taken note.
This past year, Coca Cola (KO) partnered with Liquid Light to help accelerate the commercialization of their technology. The technology is especially related to Coca-Cola because it may help reduce the cost of generating mono-ethylene glycol, one of the elements used to make the company’s plant-based PET plastic bottles.
She said there was another “big industry name” that would soon be announcing a partnership also.
“My dream is really that we are ready to commercialize this technology and reduce our dependence on oil,” she said.