In a Bid to Decarbonize, Coca-Cola Looks to Turn CO2 Emissions Into Sugar
(Photo by H.R. Kocher for Unsplash)
Coca-Cola is partnering with the University of California Berkeley (UCB) on a project to turn carbon dioxide captured from the air into sugar, the company announced in a press release on August 19.
The partnership will see Coca-Cola provide an undisclosed amount of funding for a UCB research group that has developed a method for converting CO2 into sugars using electricity. The long-term goal is to use sugars derived from CO2 to potentially create everything from soda sweeteners to PET plastic.
The partnership is specifically between the venture group of Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP) and UCB’s Peidong Yang Group. CCEP is Coca-Cola’s European and Asian Pacific arm and has a presence in 29 countries, including France, Australia and Indonesia. The Peidong Yang Group is a chemistry and nanoscience research group at UCB led by professor Peidong Yang.
“Air to sugar conversion could significantly impact our ability to preserve the natural world,” said professor Peidong Yang, in the press release. “This is a bold scientific vision that would bring immediate environmental benefits, fundamentally transforming the production and distribution of goods across the world.”
Turning CO2 Into Sugar
In 2018, NASA launched the “CO2 Conversion Challenge,” a competition designed to find a way to convert CO2 into sugar. The motivation for the challenge can be summed up in a single word: Mars. The space agency’s goal is to land humans on the red planet by 2033, and NASA wants to ensure astronauts have the items they need to survive. That’s where CO2 comes into play.
On Earth, plants and ocean microbes turn CO2 into sugars using sunlight, but there is currently no technology doing the same. However, if such technology were created, then it could make life on Mars easier as the planet has an abundance of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere.
If that CO2 were turned into sugars then it could be used to make a wide variety of items, including plastics, adhesives and medicines.
(The Peidong Yang research group. Photo via CCEP.)
The Peidong Yang Group was one of three finalists in the challenge, and a NASA blog post from August of 2021 outlines the basics of how their process for turning CO2 into sugar begins. First, the CO2 is broken down using electrical energy and the compound glycolaldehyde is produced in the process. In an August 24 article from The Daily Californian, the UCB student newspaper, Yang said that formaldehyde is also produced as part of this process, and that “mild chemical reactions” condense the two into sugar.
“Within three years we’ve managed to figure out a way using this two-step process,” Yang told The Daily Californian. Now it’s sort of a parallel with the biological version of glucose production from CO2.”
CCEP Ventures will invest in the Peidong Yang Group’s work to see if it can scale to an industrial level. Coca-Cola said that it expects to make future investments in the research team up until a pilot project, although what that pilot would consist of wasn’t specified.
While the groundwork has been laid, Yang told the Berkeley student newspaper that the sugar his team creates using CO2 isn’t quite ready to be made into Coke.
“The purity is not ideal,” Yang said. “Certainly, Coca-Cola wants purer glucose. Then, the yield and production rates … are the two major bottlenecks we need to remove, and in the next few years we want to optimize both the selectivity and purity of a particular sugar and the production rates.”
How CO2 Sugar Leads to Lower Emissions
In the press release, Coca-Cola said “agricultural ingredients,” including sugar, account for 25% of CCEP’s carbon emissions. The soda company’s 2021 self-report to the Climate Disclosure Project, an international organization that helps companies report their climate impact, reveals just how much of its emissions are tied to sugar.
In 2021, Coca-Cola reported that sugar accounted for a whopping 6 million metric tons of CO2 emissions equivalent. (Quick note: A metric ton weighs 2,200 pounds whereas an American ton weighs 2,000 pounds.) These are Scope 3 emissions, a category that includes emissions created by a company’s suppliers. Scope 3 emissions are notoriously difficult to reduce: to do that, a company needs its suppliers to both change their business practices and accurately account for their emissions.
However, no corporate coercion is needed if a company can easily change suppliers, say to a laboratory that can take captured CO2 and convert it into sugar on a massive scale. As an added bonus, Coca-Cola may be able to double-dip its environmentally friendly chip by claiming emissions reductions for both the CO2 it pulls from the air to create its sugar and the CO2 that’s avoided from the process of sourcing it in the traditional way.