A French company is using enzymes to recycle one of the most common single-use plastics
Because single-use plastics are largely derived from petroleum, by 2050 plastics might account for 20% of the world’s annual oil consumption. Reducing our dependence on plastics, and finding ways to reuse the plastic that’s already out in the world, could greatly reduce emissions.
Right now, only about 15% of all plastics worldwide are collected for recycling each year. Researchers have been trying since the 1990s to find new ways to break down plastics in the hopes of recycling more of them. Companies and researchers have worked to develop enzymatic processes, like the one used at Carbios, as well as chemical processes, like the method used by Loop Industries. But only recently have enzymatic and chemical processes started to go commercial.
Carbios’s new reactor measures 20 cubic meters—around the size of a cargo van. It can hold two metric tons of plastic, or the equivalent of about 100,000 ground-up bottles at a time, and break it down into the building blocks of PET—ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid—in 10 to 16 hours.
The company plans to use what it learns from the demonstration facility to build its first industrial plant, which will house a reactor about 20 times larger than the demonstration reactor. That full-scale plant will be built near a plastic manufacturer somewhere in Europe or the US, and should be operational by 2025, says Alain Marty, Carbios’s chief science officer.
Carbios has been developing enzymatic recycling since the company was founded in 2011. Its process relies on enzymes to chop up the long chains of polymers that make up plastic. The resulting monomers can then be purified and strung together to make new plastics. Researchers at Carbios started with a natural enzyme used by bacteria to break down leaves, then tweaked it to make it more efficient at breaking down PET.
Carbios estimates that its enzymatic recycling process reduces greenhouse gas emissions by about 30% compared to virgin PET. Marty says he expects that number to increase as they work out the kinks.
In a recent report, researchers estimated that manufacturing PET from enzymatic recycling could reduce greenhouse gas emissions between 17% and 43% compared to making virgin PET. The report wasn’t specifically about Carbios, but it’s probably a good estimate for its process, according to Gregg Beckham, a researcher at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory and a co-author of the report.
While developing new enzymes has been a major focus of new research and commercial efforts, other parts of the process will determine how efficient and cost-effective the technology will be, says Beckham, who leads a consortium on new plastic recycling and production methods.
“It’s all the less glamorous stuff,” Beckham says, like getting the plastic into a form that the enzymes can efficiently break down or separating what the enzymes spit out, that can take a lot of energy and time, and drive up emissions and costs.
Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle
The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) funds high-risk, high-reward energy research projects, and each year the agency hosts a summit where funding recipients and other researchers and companies in energy can gather to talk about what’s new in the field.
As I listened to presentations, met with researchers, and—especially—wandered around the showcase, I often had a vague feeling of whiplash. Standing at one booth trying to wrap my head around how we might measure carbon stored by plants, I would look over and see another group focused on making nuclear fusion a more practical way to power the world.
There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting. But as we knock out the easy wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions. Here are a few intriguing projects from the ARPA-E showcase that caught my eye.
“I heard you have rocks here!” I exclaimed as I approached the Quaise Energy station.
Quaise’s booth featured a screen flashing through some fast facts and demonstration videos. And sure enough, laid out on the table were two slabs of rock. They looked a bit worse for wear, each sporting a hole about the size of a quarter in the middle, singed around the edges.
These rocks earned their scorch marks in service of a big goal: making geothermal power possible anywhere. Today, the high temperatures needed to generate electricity using heat from the Earth are only accessible close to the surface in certain places on the planet, like Iceland or the western US.
Geothermal power could in theory be deployed anywhere, if we could drill deep enough. Getting there won’t be easy, though, and could require drilling 20 kilometers (12 miles) beneath the surface. That’s deeper than any oil and gas drilling done today.
Rather than grinding through layers of granite with conventional drilling technology, Quaise plans to get through the more obstinate parts of the Earth’s crust by using high-powered millimeter waves to vaporize rock. (It’s sort of like lasers, but not quite.)
The emergent industrial metaverse
Annika Hauptvogel, head of technology and innovation management at Siemens, describes the industrial metaverse as “immersive, making users feel as if they’re in a real environment; collaborative in real time; open enough for different applications to seamlessly interact; and trusted by the individuals and businesses that participate”—far more than simply a digital world.
The industrial metaverse will revolutionize the way work is done, but it will also unlock significant new value for business and societies. By allowing businesses to model, prototype, and test dozens, hundreds, or millions of design iterations in real time and in an immersive, physics-based environment before committing physical and human resources to a project, industrial metaverse tools will usher in a new era of solving real-world problems digitally.
“The real world is very messy, noisy, and sometimes hard to really understand,” says Danny Lange, senior vice president of artificial intelligence at Unity Technologies, a leading platform for creating and growing real-time 3-D content. “The idea of the industrial metaverse is to create a cleaner connection between the real world and the virtual world, because the virtual world is so much easier and cheaper to work with.”
While real-life applications of the consumer metaverse are still developing, industrial metaverse use cases are purpose-driven, well aligned with real-world problems and business imperatives. The resource efficiencies enabled by industrial metaverse solutions may increase business competitiveness while also continually driving progress toward the sustainability, resilience, decarbonization, and dematerialization goals that are essential to human flourishing.
This report explores what it will take to create the industrial metaverse, its potential impacts on business and society, the challenges ahead, and innovative use cases that will shape the future. Its key findings are as follows:
• The industrial metaverse will bring together the digital and real worlds. It will enable a constant exchange of information, data, and decisions and empower industries to solve extraordinarily complex real-world problems digitally, changing how organizations operate and unlocking significant societal benefits.
• The digital twin is a core metaverse building block. These virtual models simulate real-world objects in detail. The next generation of digital twins will be photorealistic, physics-based, AI-enabled, and linked in metaverse ecosystems.
• The industrial metaverse will transform every industry. Currently existing digital twins illustrate the power and potential of the industrial metaverse to revolutionize design and engineering, testing, operations, and training.
The Download: China’s retro AI photos, and experts’ AI fears
Across social media, a number of creators are generating nostalgic photographs of China with the help of AI. Even though these images get some details wrong, they are realistic enough to trick and impress many of their followers.
The pictures look sophisticated in terms of definition, sharpness, saturation, and color tone. Their realism is partly down to a recent major update of image-making artificial-intelligence program Midjourney that was released in mid-March, which is better not only at generating human hands but also at simulating various photography styles.
It’s still relatively easy, even for untrained eyes, to tell that the photos are generated by an AI. But for some creators, their experiments are more about trying to recall a specific era in time than trying to trick their audience. Read the full story.
Zeyi’s story is from China Report, his weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on tech in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.
Read more of our reporting on AI-generated images:
+ These new tools let you see for yourself how biased AI image models are. Bias and stereotyping are still huge problems for systems like DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, despite companies’ attempts to fix it. Read the full story.