But there was a problem: Global wollastonite production from mines in New York, Mexico, China, and elsewhere is only 700,000 tons per year. Global cement production is around 4.2 billion tons—and growing rapidly to feed demand in China, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere. Even if every ounce of wollastonite was channeled into cement production, it could only offset around one-fifth of one percent of the market, which would not be enough to make a difference on climate change.
So—as has often been the case at key turning points in the history of science—Atakan and his friends repaired to a colleague’s apartment for a beer. There, on paper napkins, they hashed out the steps needed to produce synthetic wollastonite in their lab. When they figured it out, Atakan says, “I knew it was a game-changer.”
From there, it took several more years of experimentation, research and development, and fundraising to move the special cement out of a Rutgers lab and into a fully functioning factory. Today—just a few miles from where Atakan made his first quarter-size cement chunk—the Solidia factory is equipped to produce a 100-foot, 15-ton reinforced concrete slab. Their business model is to sell both the cement and the curing equipment to large-scale concrete producers around the country and the world. Schuler convinces these producers to send him a few bags of their “aggregates” (each company’s special cocktail of sand, gravel, and other minerals), which his staff mix with Solidia cement, shape into bricks, cure in a Solidia chamber, then send back to the producers as proof that the stuff really works. Hopefully, it works even better than the cement they had been using.
“We’re focused on making a better product,” Schuler says. “Sustainability is the icing on the cake.
Carbontech is not without controversy. Sustainability may also be a secondary concern for the major fossil fuel companies most eager to see the industry take off. Solidia received seed funding from the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, a group that includes Shell, BP, Total, and other multinational oil majors. The Carbon X Prize is sponsored primarily by NRG, a Texas-based, natural gas- and coal-reliant electric utility, and COSIA, a research collaboration of the major players in Canada’s heavily polluting tar sands industry. In other words, these are the companies with the greatest need to offload a lot of carbon dioxide as pressure from governments and investors mounts to cut emissions.
“It’s political protection for the oil industry,” says David Keith, a Harvard professor and founder of Carbon Engineering, one of only a few companies in the world focused on the commercialization of Direct Air Capture of CO2 from the atmosphere. In June, Keith published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Joule that proves CO2 can now be captured from the atmosphere using the company’s Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology for less than $100 per ton.
Keith says companies like Solidia have a long way to go before they become carbon-negative, since it still requires a lot of (usually fossil fuel-powered) energy to convert CO2 into concrete, plastic, or other materials. At the same time, a robust carbontech industry may simply prolong the global transition away from fossil fuels, which, even in the most optimistic outlook for negative emissions technologies, is still the top priority to stay below two degrees Celsius of warming.
“Some people perceive these technologies to be an excuse for the [fossil fuel] industry to not act as quickly as they need to,” McKinsey’s Henderson explains.