Building With Carbon: How Carbon Craft Design is Tackling Air Pollution

Carbon Craft Design, carbon tiles

Carbon Craft Design Founder Tejas Sidnal talks to Jumpstart about using upcycled carbon to make tiles.

Carbon Craft Design, a Goa-based startup, offers a range of tiles that features patterns inspired by Indian cities and industries. But, these monochromatic tiles offer more than what meets the eye. Called Carbon Tiles, these tiles are made using upcycled carbon, harnessed from polluted air and factory waste.

“I’ve always been excited about biomimicry as the larger strategy around design, which essentially means taking inspiration from nature to design,” Carbon Craft Design Founder Tejas Sidnal tells Jumpstart.

An architect and innovator, Sidnal completed his Master’s from AA School of Architecture, London, in 2013. During the course, he learnt about three important streams: biomimicry, material systems, and computational designs.

Later, Sidnal, who stayed in the U.K for a while, directed a visiting school for two years along with two colleagues from London. Here, he gained hands-on experience in bringing the three streams together. By 2018, Sidnal had returned to India, and began looking into ways in which he could apply the concepts to solve air pollution in the country.

Tejas Sidnal, Founder of Carbon Craft Design

“[Our] purpose was very clear: to solve air pollution,” Sidnal says. “And being architects, we started to think from the perspective that how can we solve this problem through an architectural intervention?”

The easiest way was to look at the building and construction industry’s contribution to air pollution. The sector is responsible for around 39% of the world’s carbon emissions. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), emissions from direct building need to fall 50% by 2030, to meet net-zero carbon building targets by 2050. To Sidnal, energy efficiency was the answer.

As they started researching more, Sidnal and his team realized that there was a “huge gap in carbon negative or even carbon-neutral products” in the market. These, he adds, are essential to building carbon-negative houses.

“Air pollution essentially has two issues,” Sidnal says. “One is, how do you capture or collect it? And the second is, what the hell do you do with it?”

“These are two different problems…you can’t solve both problems at the same time,” he adds. Carbon Craft Design focused on the latter – putting captured carbon to use, and was officially launched in 2019.

Initially, Sidnal’s team ventured into carbon utilization technologies by making bricks and facades with captured carbon. However, both the products failed due to low market and lack of scalability.

“Who wants to pay 10 times the price for a brick, which doesn’t have any other value apart from having carbon?”

The failures, however, taught them two valuable lessons. One, the market appeal is higher for products with a design element. Two, capturing carbon from the air lacked scalability – the amount of captured carbon was not sufficient to make products on a large scale.

The solution was to make carbon tiles in collaboration with factories. The tiles have a design element, hence market appeal, and the factories supplied enough carbon to commercially scale up production.

Carbon Tile

Building with carbon

Some products that are black in color, Sidnal says, are most likely made with black carbon as a pigment or as a basic element. This black carbon is made by “burning fossil fuel in a controlled environment.”

“Black carbon is essentially what is there in the air and in the middle of these two extremes is something called as rCB, which is recovered carbon black,” Sidnal explains.

Black tires, for instance, contain about 30 to 40% of carbon black by weight, he adds. If not burned, these tires are recycled to get mainly three byproducts: fuel, steel wires, and rCB. A single factory, Sidnal says, generates about 10,000 kilograms of rCB per day as waste. All the formal and informal factories together in India produce around 150 million kgs of rCB every day.

Currently, as there are no uses for rCB, it is sold to cement factories, and is eventually burnt, causing particulate matter air pollution. Particulate matter, or PM particles, is one of the most harmful constituents of air pollution.

This is especially concerning for India, which is home to 22 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world. Globally, PM 2.5 is responsible for around 4.2 million premature deaths every year, of which, over 250,000 occur in India. PM 2.5 constitutes fine particles that are smaller than 2.5 microns in size. Studies have shown that it can increase the risk of cardiac arrest and respiratory diseases, among other illnesses.

“We realized that the important part over here is what you do with it [carbon],” Sidnal says. “Because, if you don’t have any paying customer for buying the product out of this, it will still be dumped, it will still be burnt, because it’s a liability.”

To solve this problem, Carbon Craft Design follows a three-step process: collect, process, and build. First, it partnered with companies that capture carbon directly from the air as well as the factories that generate carbon waste to collect carbon.

Once collected, they send the carbon to their facility in Karnataka, where it is processed. It is then sent to Morbi, in Gujarat, where they work with artisans and craftsmen to handcraft the tiles using a hydraulic press.

Handcrafting Carbon Tiles

Sidnal says that each tile is made up of more than 70% waste material, including carbon, marble chips, marble powder, and other proprietary elements. Moreover, he claims that compared to vitrified tiles, carbon tiles require only one-fifth of energy to produce. This, he says, is mainly because the startup employs traditional handcrafted tile producers to make these tiles.

However, handcrafted tiles come at a cost. Compared to vitrified tiles, which costs around US$1.5 to $2 per square feet, carbon tiles cost $4 per square feet.

Globally, while there are many players in CO2 space, very few are working with PM 2.5 or carbon, Sidnal says. While CO2 has many industrial applications, it is hardly the case with carbon. This, Sidnal says, is especially because it is hard to work with.

Since Carbon Tile’s launch in January 2020, Carbon Craft Design has designed three retail stores for Adidas, with a fourth one in the works. Moreover, the company is in talks with real estate builders and developers such as JSW, Larsen & Toubro, and Godrej, and has also received inquiries from Starbucks.

Present challenges and the way forward

Due to high costs, Carbon Tile caters to a niche market. Going forward, however, Sidnal hopes to make the tiles more affordable. Sustainability, he says, shouldn’t just be for the “elites.”

“We want to get into an affordability segment and be able to offer people the choice of a lower carbon footprint tile,” he adds.

Another challenge, Sidnal says, is the issue of scalability associated with handcrafting tiles. One way they are planning to solve this is by mechanizing plain tiles.

“If you go into any retail store or a commercial building, you’ll find [that] pattern tiles [cover] only 10% of the entire space,” he says. Plain tiles, therefore, would have more demand.

The company is currently looking at machines that can scale plain tiles. With mass manufacturing, it hopes to bring down the price by half, thereby helping it enter the affordable sector. At the same time, they will keep producing handcrafted tiles as a niche product, Sidnal adds.

Convincing people of the safety of these carbon tiles is yet another challenge the startup is facing at the moment. With many customers concerned about the tiles’ safety, the company is getting various safety certifications.

Currently, it has already received the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) certification. In addition, it is working on obtaining the Greenguard certification, the Indian Green Building Council (IGBC) certification, and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, among others. These, Sidnal says, will add credibility to the product.

Meanwhile, due to the pandemic, the company is facing a lull in orders. With COVID-related restrictions and the monsoon hitting India, construction activities have come to a standstill, he says.

As it attempts to tide over the repercussions of the pandemic and the current lull in construction, Carbon Craft Design is also in talks to raise investments. “Once we get the right partners on board, then the issue with capital [will be] resolved. So that solves a lot of other problems,” Sidnal adds.

For the company, the larger vision is to build carbon-negative houses, thereby making cleaner cities. For this, it is also planning to diversify into other products in the next two years.

“We are looking at one million square feet impact, by the next two-three years,” Sidnal says. “[This] would mean we would have trained 100 artisans, and prevented somewhere about 3 billion liters of air from being polluted.”

Images courtesy of Carbon Craft Design

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