Climate Tech

CarbonCapture is one step closer to pulling CO2 from the atmosphere

The company is two years out from commercializing its tech, but has a fresh $35 million and a new partnership with a mine.
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A diagram of CarbonCapture's DAC process. (CarbonCapture)

5 min read

To keep the planet from warming to more dangerous levels, humanity will not only need to avoid new carbon emissions whenever possible, but also to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

One way to do this is direct air capture (DAC) tech, which pulls CO2—you guessed it—directly out of the air, so it can be stored somewhere else.

But the high cost of DAC today means few companies use it to reach carbon-neutral or carbon-negative goals. Swiss carbon capture firm Climeworks operates Orca, the world’s largest DAC facility, in Iceland, but in 2019 the company said its process cost $500 to $600 per ton. Meanwhile, industry experts estimate that $100 per metric ton of CO2 is likely the point when carbon capture would become economically viable, since US customers today typically pay between $65 and $110 for commercial CO2.

Carbon Capture Inc. says it has a cheaper way to achieve negative emissions. Last week, CarbonCapture raised $35 million in a Series A round led by Prime Movers Lab and named Adrian Corless its new CEO. Corless previously worked at Carbon Engineering, one of the three early DAC companies, along with Climeworks and Global Thermostat.

The Los Angeles–based startup plans to use the funding to accelerate its production development and deploy its initial DAC systems in the US.

“We do have competitors, but the need to scale is far beyond even what the few of us can probably accomplish,” Corless told Emerging Tech Brew.

Out of thin air...

As of June 2020, 15 DAC plants around the world are removing less than 10,000 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year, according to the IEA. To avoid warming the planet by more than 2 degrees celsius, negative-emissions technologies need to be removing billions by 2050. DAC is one such tech, but nature-based strategies like reforestation and storing carbon in the soil also fall into this category.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the Senate and now held up by negotiations in the House includes $3.5 billion for four regional DAC hubs in the US. These facilities could pull at least 4 million tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year.

With DAC, carbon is isolated from the air and then sequestered in one way or another—some companies shoot the CO2 deep into the ground, others create synthetic fuels, and some even sell it to soft-drink manufacturers to supply the bubbles in your soda. This process makes it different from the most common type of carbon capture, which is used at industrial sites like power plants and aims to filter CO2 from the gases that result from burning fossil fuels.

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CarbonCapture’s wrinkle is that it uses zeolites—an abundant, stable, and low-cost mineral—to absorb CO2. While zeolites are already mass produced for other industrial applications, CarbonCapture is the first to use them for DAC.

Others have avoided zeolites because they absorb water as well as CO2. With more water than CO2 in the atmosphere, this can be a challenge to the carbon-capture process.

But CarbonCapture says it has a way to remove most of the water from the air before it gets to the zeolites. It sees the dual absorption as an upside: The company can capture between one and five tons of pure water for each ton of CO2, which it says will be valuable to drought-affected regions.

Its process uses shipping-container-sized modules with fans that pull air in through the zeolites to dehumidify it, resulting in the bonus byproduct of purified water, and leaving the CO2.

“Our goal is to develop these modular machines and then to be partnering with companies that are able to take that CO2 and permanently fix it,” Corless said.

CarbonCapture is about two years away from making its technology available commercially, but it is partnering with mining giant Rio Tinto to use its DAC system at the Tamarack nickel mine, which is in Minnesota and operated by Talon Metals.

Along with nickel, the mine extracts basalt-based minerals that are very good at absorbing CO2. CarbonCapture plans to use these minerals to store the CO2 it pulls out of the air, and being on-site will make that integration cheaper.

“That’s happening all the time. It just happens over thousands of years,” Corless said. “You can accelerate that by basically crushing that material, making it finer, and then putting it in contact with higher concentrations of CO2. You can take that thousands of years and bring it down to sort of hours or days.”

Rio and Talon are exploring ways to integrate the mineralization of CO2 into their mining process so the operation is carbon negative, he said.

The mining partnership provides CarbonCapture with a customer to focus on as product development continues and an opportunity to scale, Corless said.

“There’s no part of our product that exists that requires a supply chain to scale that already hasn’t scaled,” he said. “Once we commercialize our technology and our product, scaling the business is actually a lot easier.”

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Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.