What it does
Carbyn seeks to mitigate the climate crisis by creating a carbon negative bioplastic that stores more carbon than it releases throughout its lifecycle. This bioplastic is home compostable and meant to intervene in the use of small plastic objects.
I was inspired by the concept of regenerative design which focuses on not just ‘doing less harm’ with the objects and systems we create, but actually leaving the environment in a better state. As an industrial designer, I was also grappling with how the scale of mass production can often outweigh the gains made by environmental initiatives. I realized that if we can build materials and products which are carbon negative, we could use the power of scale to our advantage in sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide as quickly as possible.
How it works
My material is a biocomposite made of two bio-based ingredients: biochar and PHA bioplastic. Biochar is a unique material because it is carbon-negative — meaning it can sequester more carbon than it releases into the atmosphere during its production. It is essentially biomass (usually local agricultural waste such as wood chips or rice husk) which is heated in the absence of oxygen to produce usable energy and biochar. Since there is no available oxygen to form carbon dioxide through combustion, the carbon remains in the stable biochar material. PHA is a bioplastic which is produced by bacteria through fermentation. It is unique because it is both home compostable and easily formed using existing plastic processing methods. By combining these two materials, I created a carbon-storing biocomposite which can be produced using conventional manufacturing processes. Carbyn is also home compostable and will actually make the soil more fertile as it biodegrades.
Since this proposal is for a novel biomaterial, my prototypes took the form of material samples. I followed a new design process called Material-Driven Design using biochar as my starting material. From there I partnered with the Pratt Center for Material Science and began exploring and experimenting with different bio-based additives which would safely biodegrade in the natural environment. Together we explored everything from ceramic-like bricks to leather-like fabrics, all using non-petroleum binders derived from algae, bacteria, plants, and animals. Everything from biomass source of the biochar to brand of binder affected the material prototypes and was meticulously recorded. Along the way, I gathered hands-on feedback from colleagues to determine which prototypes had the most potential for commercial manufacture. Through the tireless prototyping of over 100 ‘material recipes’ I finally arrived at the biocomposite I’m calling Carbyn. Through the use of a CNC machine and aluminum mould, I was able to heat and form the material into a prototype of a disposable floss pick. I also designed a specific texture for the prototype which would signify to users that the material was biodegradable while also increasing the surface area, allowing the material to biodegrade more quickly.
How it is different
While there are many new biomaterials which incorporate organic and agricultural waste, these forms of biomass still have usable energy within their chemical bonds. By using biochar, we can add yet another useful stage to their life cycle, taking these biomass-based materials from carbon neutral to carbon negative. Unfortunately we are in a climate crisis which requires us to do more than just lower our carbon footprint — we have to actively reverse it. Through the use of carbon negative materials such as Carbyn we can make that happen. Carbyn is also unique in that it is a drop-in solution to current plastic production processes, meaning it doesn’t require retrofits or the development of any new machinery. My hope is that Carbyn can be a bridge towards more localized and regenerative forms of material production.
So far Carbyn has only been produced on a prototype scale. The next steps include building enduring partnerships with biochar and PHA producing companies to develop a scalable manufacturing plan. This includes all of the associated legal frameworks of forming a business and creating production contracts. Further steps would include looking for appropriate funding, creating a more resilient business plan, ensuring full legal protection of the material recipe and production process, and pursuing standardized certification through life cycle analysis, carbon footprinting, and biodegradability testing.