Fairbrics recycles CO2 into synthetic fibre
It's no longer up for debate: industry must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming. To facilitate this transition, start-up Fairbrics transforms CO2 into an everyday product: PET, which can be used as polyester fibre. Focus on this promising company.
It all began in 2019, when two chemical engineers met at the Entrepreneur First incubator at Station F in Paris. Tawfiq Nasr Allah had already been working on CO2 recycling for around ten years, defending his thesis on the same topic in late 2018 at CEA Paris-Saclay, under the supervision of Thibault Cantat of the Nanosciences and Innovation for Materials, Biomedicine and Energy Laboratory (NIMBE - Univ. Paris-Saclay, CEA, CNRS). Benoît Illy, who holds a PhD in materials science, wanted to set up his own business. The partners want to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, 5% of which are emitted by the fashion industry. Today, polyester accounts for 60% of the market, but its manufacture requires 100 million tonnes of oil products every year. The result is Fairbrics, based in Villebon-sur-Yvette (Essonne), which converts CO2 into polyester fibre. "There's major interest in this kind of technology, there are proofs of concept, but they're not very mature, and the need is enormous," explains Benoît Illy.
In 2020, the start-up launched its first round of fundraising, raising a million euros from business angels. It then moved to Saclay plateau, to the accelerator belonging to the industrial chemist, Air Liquide. "It was in this first laboratory that we developed our proof of concept and manufactured our first T-shirt. Investors really liked it," adds the co-founder. H&M, On-Running and Aigle then signed purchasing agreements for the material produced by the start-up. Buoyed by these conclusive results, Fairbrics raised a further five million euros in January 2022. According to Benoît Illy, "the laboratory phase is now over. We are now industrialising our process." To finance this next stage, the start-up raised 22 million euros in January 2023, 17 million euros from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and 5 million euros from its partners. The start-up will launch a new financing round by the end of 2023 to consolidate its finances and secure its current projects. Seventeen people currently work for the company.
Recycling industrial CO2
Once the solution is industrialised, it will begin with the core of heavy industry such as steelmaking and petrochemicals, which emit large quantities of CO2. This will be recovered, bottled and bought back at low cost by the start-up. A win-win solution, since manufacturers are exempt from carbon tax and can communicate about how they are reducing their emissions. "There is still very little CO2 recovery. Our aim is to establish partnerships with manufacturers who emit carbon dioxide. We take it from them thereby reducing their emissions," explains the co-founder. "When you buy a T-shirt, it's made from polyester fibres, which in turn are made from polyester chips, synthesised with an acid and an alcohol. Our process changes the way these molecules are produced. We use CO2 as a building block."
The rest is down to catalytic chemistry. Electrolysis converts carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide (CO). Two oxidative carbonylation and oxalate hydrogenation steps follow. The resulting product is ethylene glycol, which, combined with terephthalic acid, is used to make PET, the famous polyester fibres. This complex process is the subject of seven patents. By analysing the life cycle of its molecules, the start-up claims that its polyester reduces the fibre's carbon footprint by 70%.
"For the moment, we can produce all the ethylene glycol we need using CO2. We are still working on the synthesis of terephthalic acid, which is always synthesised from virgin or recycled materials. Our ultimate goal is to design a PET that is 100% derived from industrial carbon," explains Benoît Illy. "This should be possible within three years," says the co-founder. In the meantime, Fairbrics aims to install a pilot demonstrator in Antwerp, Belgium, by mid-2024. The CO2 will be recovered directly from the port's chemical platform. The pilot plant will be able to produce 100 kg of polyester a day, enough to make around 1,000 T-shirts. The first pilot plant will open in 2026 and will be capable of producing one tonne of polyester a day.
While the start-up is currently building its demonstrator and pilot plant, the final objective is different. The company intends to license its technology to manufacturers, limiting itself to the production of polyester beads, in order to limit investment in equipment.
"For the moment, we're concentrating on clothing applications. But we're thinking of working on plastic packaging, or even partnering with carmakers to design their seats," explains Benoît Illy. And to conclude: "If any chemists on the Saclay plateau are interested in our project, please get in touch - we're recruiting a lot of staff at the moment!"
As the start-up's countless fundraising campaigns have shown, its plan to recycle CO2 into polyester is proving popular with manufacturers. All the more so as the company only synthesises ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, and therefore has to rely on its partners to transform these substances into polyester fibre. Participants in the Fairbrics technology industrial acceleration project are the University of Antwerp (Belgium), TECNALIA (Spain), Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology LUT (Finland), AIMPLAS (Spain), CiaoTech (Italy), the German Institute of Textile and Fiber Research Denkendorf (Germany), the city of Lappeenranta (Finland), Digiotouch OU (Estonia), Faurecia (France), Naldeo (France), SurePure (Belgium) and Les Tissages de Charlieu (France). These manufacturers, from seven European countries, are present across the entire value chain, from downstream with experts in technical design, CO2 capture, chemical recycling and electrolysis, to upstream with, for example, Faurecia, an automotive equipment manufacturer, and Tissages de Charlieu, textile specialists.
Co-founders Tawfiq Nasr Allah and Benoît Illy are Fairbrics' majority shareholders, with the remainder held by corporate investors.
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