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New technology recycles pollutants into versatile commodities — here's how it could revolutionize industries from food to pharmaceuticals

"There is no shortage of carbon, and no shortage of people who want to decarbonize."

"There is no shortage of carbon, and no shortage of people who want to decarbonize."

Photo Credit: ECCO

A recycling project in South Africa is pulling the planet-warming teeth out of air pollution and with it creating a product that, among other things, can help to brighten smiles.  

That's because an ingenious carbon-capture operation at a Pretoria Nestlé plant uses smart chemistry and artificial intelligence to turn dirty fumes into harmless baking soda, an ingredient in common toothpastes, pharmaceuticals, and myriad other products. 

"Waste is what you have when you run out of imagination," Kempton White, the founder and CEO of the Emissions Capture Company, told The Cool Down. 

The company, ECCO, based in London, was tapped by Nestlé to set up sustainable systems that can reuse waste streams without disrupting operations. The household brand name, headquartered in Switzerland, plans to cut its "carbon footprint" in half by 2030. 

"It was actually Nestlé that prompted this," White said. 

ECCO's process, including the carbon-capture system WhiteBox, is part of the solution now running thanks to a team of experts, machine learning, and imagination. 

The latter point is something White learned from his mentor, David Scott, who helped get ECCO off the ground and is involved with other clean energy work around the world. 

The ECCO team seems to be flush with imaginative minds, as the company is turning waste of all sorts into useful commodities used by people around the world each day. Baking soda is a popular example. 

And it's just the beginning of the potential for ECCO, according to White. 

He has experts in infrastructure, finance, technology, and other fields who help to develop cost-effective solutions. There's a plastic recycling program that turns would-be trash into food-grade packaging materials. Another operation transforms landfill waste into alternative fuels. 

WhiteBox, which integrates into a production plant's chimney, has been heavily vetted at the Nestlé location, with more than 10,000 hours of successful operation during about two years. The site makes a variety of the company's well-known products, from coffee creamer to noodles. The setup requires less than 20,000 square feet. It's all supported by ECCO's AI, providing the data analysis that caught Nestlé's attention.

"This analysis is key in the mechanics of converting the flue gas and recycled wastewater into green chemicals, namely …  baking soda," Nestlé regional public relations director Saint-Francis Tohlang said in a press release. 

Afterward, the host company has a stable supply of baking soda and other reusable substances. 

White said it's important to engage, not alienate, corporations that need some help cleaning up operational pollution. He is aware of so-called greenwashing. It's a practice used by some businesses to put out good PR about environmental goals, though the action never lives up to the billing. 

"We ensure that our clients are not doing this before our engagement," he said.  

In about an hour, White can outline social, political, and even cultural factors that impact not only his business plan but sustainability initiatives in general. He has been watching the planet's health since he was a kid. 

"[I] have been concerned about the environment since the late '80s, when as a child, I went to Quebec and saw acid rain destroying trees," he said. He had "a visceral reaction to it." 

As a result, he is motivated to continue with the work. White said that plans are in development for an "AmmoniaBox," with a list of patents already secured. 

"The process produces ammonia from ambient temperature and pressure using wave chemistry and plasma. The integration of the A-Box and WhiteBox enables the desulphurization of energy transition metals like copper and nickel, without the need for water or limestone, and the resulting 'waste stream' from the process is then converted into fertilizer," he said. 

In addition to carbon, ECCO captures other harmful air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, mercury, lead, arsenic, and particulate pollution, minuscule menaces that are associated with hormone changes in humans, among other issues. Air pollution can also increase the risks of cancer, asthma, heart attack, and even premature death, according to the American Lung Association. 

Capturing carbon and safely storing it is gaining powerful attention elsewhere, as well. Sacramento's Infinium is turning air pollution into cleaner fuels, with help from Bill Gates.  

In Pretoria, White said, Nestlé has been a "phenomenal partner." He shared a personal story about how the project has impacted lives in the community. An ambitious millwright was hired and trained as a lab tech and is now working to become a chemical engineer. 

"This is an Africa story," he said about the initial site. 

But the plan is to make it intercontinental, with eight plants set to be up and running in the U.S. within the next seven years. A WhiteBox takes about 14 months to deploy. The U.S. rollout starts with an operation in Houston that's already in development. White said shovels should be in the ground in October. The name of the client should be released soon. 

If successful, more everyday products could be made from remediated pollution. 

"There is no shortage of carbon," White said, "and no shortage of people who want to decarbonize." 

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