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Meet Your Next Raw Material: Carbon Dioxide

The Future is Ours to Shape panel at NYFW
What if the air we breathe out could one day become the clothes on our back or the shoes on our feet? It sounds farfetched, but it’s not as out-there as you might think. In fact, it’s already been done.

Energy company NRG on Tuesday debuted a sneaker, designed by Pensole Footwear Design Academy founder D’wayne Edwards, and created with materials made from repurposed carbon dioxide.

“Because we’re an energy company we do produce a lot of carbon and we must rigorously challenge ourselves to maintain sustainable practices. We also feel that carbon will continue to be a byproduct of the world’s energy mix, and as long as it is we need to make sure it’s as clean as possible,” said Gin Kinney, vice president of business solutions at NRG, speaking as part of a fashion and innovation panel discussion moderated by Marie Claire creative director Nina Garcia during New York Fashion Week. “So we’re excited to be here today to unveil an actual example of taking carbon pollution and turning it into something creative and useful. We’ve created a shoe essentially without a footprint.”

That’s no mean feat. According to an MIT-led lifecycle assessment conducted in 2013, a typical pair of running shoes generates 30 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions—equivalent to keeping a 100-watt light bulb on for one week—more than two-thirds of which happens during the manufacturing process.

That’s just one pair of shoes. Meanwhile, energy-related CO2 emissions in the United States totaled 5.27 billion metric tons last year. And the challenge of taking a pollutant and turning it into a product is exactly why 10XBeta—a network of product designers and engineers that typically shepherds medical devices from concept to commercialization—wanted to participate in NRG’s experiment.

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The Shoe Without a Footprint“If you look at a basic shoe right now, the shoe in itself represents probably one of the most eclectic collections of material in fashion,” said Marcel Botha, chief executive officer and lead project manager at 10XBeta. “[Creating a shoe from repurposed CO2] was a challenge that was very different from anything else that we’d done, but I understood the science and the future science and the commitment we would need from the industry to get it done, and we said this is a challenge that we want to be a part of.”

Botha said the intent of “The Shoe Without a Footprint”—a very special project, he added—was not to commercialize it, but start a conversation.

“It’s an example of hope,” Garcia provided, and the panelists all nodded in agreement.

The promise of creating something that can bring about both environmental and economic change for the world at large is also at the heart of the NRG Cosia Carbon XPrize. The four-year initiative, launched last September, aims to accelerate the development and use of carbon conversion technologies.

A total of 47 entries from seven countries are currently contending to win $20 million to develop breakthrough technologies that convert the most CO2 into one or more products with the highest net value.

“What we’re trying to do is engage as many brilliant minds around the world as possible. And I think that this [shoe] is an example of why you need as many brilliant thinkers from every field as possible,” said Paul Bunje, principal and senior scientist at Xprize. “I say thinkers because they’re not all scientists and engineers. We’re trying to solve a problem and a problem doesn’t get solved just by scientists, or just by engineers; it’s solved by designers and creative thinkers, and it gets solved by people who know how to turn products into something we’re going to want to buy. That’s what we’re looking to do here.”

To that end, the 47 teams competing for the top prize are working on technologies that convert CO2 into anything from shoes to clothing to paint on the walls.

“We’re a nonprofit that’s interested in catalyzing innovation that’s changing the world,” Bunje added. “NRG is the perfect example of a company that knows things need to change, innovation can help us get there, let’s build this bridge together.”