Estimated reading time: 16 minutes
Carbon removal is when you remove CO2 from the atmosphere that’s already there. Carbon capture is when you capture the CO2 at its source (so that it doesn’t even get into the atmosphere in the first place). Such sources can be fossil fuel driven power plants, for example.
We know how bad CO2 emissions are for our climate. So being able to capture or remove CO2 from the atmosphere and the oceans would be great. But what’s the current status, and what happened over the last year? Are there early-stage companies with new technologies? Who are some of the experts in R&D? What about R&D funding? Do venture capitalists invest in this?
In order to get some answers to some of these questions, I used Mergeflow’s tech discovery software. I’ll describe what I found below.
Table of contents
- The XPRIZE Carbon Removal challenge
- Why is carbon removal and capture hard?
- How I did my search
- Venture capital investments in carbon capture and removal companies
- Public research funding of carbon capture and removal SMEs
- Some carbon capture and removal R&D collaboration networks
- Carbon capture and removal: What are the numbers?
But why look at this topic now? My trigger was the recent announcement of the XPRIZE Carbon Removal challenge.
The XPRIZE Carbon Removal challenge
The XPRIZE Carbon Removal challenge is a four-year challenge, funded with $100Mio from Elon Musk. The goal is to “create and demonstrate solutions that can pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere or oceans ultimately scaling massively to gigaton levels, locking away CO2 permanently in an environmentally benign way” (quoted from the challenge’s webpage). Here is a 1:35 min intro video:
As far as I understand it, the XPRIZE challenge is about carbon removal, not about carbon capture.
However, for my article here, I looked at both topics. As you will see below, in fact most solutions I found are carbon capture, not carbon removal solutions.
Why is carbon removal and capture hard?
I have no background in chemistry. So I first had to find out why carbon (CO2) capture and removal are hard.
The short answer
You need a lot of energy. And it’s hard to capture the CO2 into something that remains stable, and doesn’t just fall apart and release the CO2 again.
The longer answer
You burn hydrocarbon fuel because you want to get energy (e.g. to move something). And “burning fuel” basically means you use O2 to oxidize your fuel. O2 is your oxidizer. No oxidizer, no burning fuel (rockets have to bring their own oxidizer because there’s no O2 or any other oxidizer in space).
Now, when you burn fuel this way, you get energy plus some other products. These other products are a lot of CO2, and some water (H2O) and other things. I won’t go into the water and the other things here. Not because they are not important but because I want to focus on the CO2 here.
Above I said that you get energy from burning fuel. Before, you had O2 and your fuel in high-energy state. Then you take out the energy, and the CO2 now sits around (in the atmosphere or the ocean) in a low-energy state. And therein lies the problem. Because now when you want to re-bind the CO2 to something, you need to lift it out of its low-energy state. In other words, you have to put energy into it. A lot. Plus, like I said above, you want the end product to be something that’s stable.
Here is a schematic I made to illustrate my understanding of the process (click to enlarge):
How I did my search
OK, now back to my original question. What happened in carbon capture and removal over the last year?
First, I did a general 360° search in Mergeflow, to get a first overview across venture investments, markets, patents, R&D, news, etc..
First, the volume of industry news on carbon capture and removal seems to be rising recently (I added the red arrow to the screenshot):
Blogs also seem to be rising slightly too, but not so much:
In the 360° report screenshot above, you can already see the venture capital investments a bit. Let’s look at them in more detail.
Venture capital investments in carbon capture and removal companies
Let’s start with the most recent VC funding, C-Zero.
Here’s the idea behind C-Zero: Traditionally, in order to use natural gas as energy source, you would burn it. By contrast, C-Zero’s technology only uses the hydrogen that’s in the natural gas as energy source. And the carbon is extracted as a “dense solid”, in their words. Below is a schematic from C-Zero’s website:
From the schematic above, you can see that C-Zero’s technology does carbon capture, and indirectly can also do carbon removal.
Svante is a carbon capture company. Their technology captures carbon from flue gas, via nanotechnology-based proprietary filters. Flue gas is exhaust generated by industrial plants (cement or steel plants, for example).
According to their 2:13 min video (see below), their technology’s capital cost is less than half of existing technologies.
Carbon Clean Solutions
Carbon Clean Solutions is a carbon capture company as well. They supply cement and steel plants, as well as refineries, energy from waste plants, and biogas (renewable natural gas) feeds.
They are currently developing modular systems that can be used out-of-the-box. This will make installation of their systems much easier, and therefore faster and cheaper. The schematic below from Carbon Clean Solutions’ website shows the process (click to enlarge):
Last Energy is not a carbon capture or carbon removal company. Rather, their goal is to build modular nuclear reactors, based on an open-source design.
Now you’re probably asking yourself, “Why include a nuclear power company in an article about carbon capture and removal?”
Bret Kugelmass, who came up with the idea for OPEN100, argues that “nuclear is the only energy source that we could use to pull carbon from the air” (see this article in VentureBeat). In fact, making energy sources that can power carbon removal motivates what OPEN100 is doing. Bret Kugelmass talks about this in this 7-minute presentation (the remaining 8 minutes of the video are Q&A):
OK, next, let’s switch perspective a bit and look at public R&D funding of SMEs.
Public research funding of carbon capture and removal SMEs
Mergeflow tracks public R&D funding from across a number of organizations and geographies. For discovering early-stage SMEs, I recommend checking out the SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) program. This is because SBIR funds individual companies, not consortia, which makes it a lot easier to pinpoint who really does the work.
- Materials science and batteries: Emerging technologies in 2020.
- How to get better search results for tech discovery.
Here is an overview table of carbon capture and removal SBIR fundings since beginning of 2020 (click to enlarge):
In 2020, Community Energy got an SBIR grant to develop an improved chemical process for carbon mineralization. In carbon mineralization, the CO2 reacts with minerals that contain magnesium or calcium. The result is a solid carbonate. This carbonate can then be used as building material, for making cement, for example. This is important because the cement industry currently is a big contributor to CO2 emissions (8% of global CO2 emissions, according to Bloomberg).
The principal investigator for the project is Jennifer Wilcox from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. In 2018, she gave a TED talk that outlines some of the ideas behind her carbon removal research:
I find Jennifer Wilcox’s talk very helpful for better understanding the energy and other requirements of carbon capture and removal.
Brimstone Energy got an SBIR grant to develop a new technology for producing CO2-free hydrogen, and cement as a byproduct. The idea is to produce materials that can replace CO2-intensive cement by less CO2-intensive alternative materials.
Principal investigator for the project is Brimstone Energy co-founder Cody Finke. In a short statement for the World Materials Forum 2020, he describes the rationale behind Brimstone Energy’s work:
Brimstone Energy is a project of Cyclotron Road. Cyclotron Road is a project of Berkeley Lab, in partnership with Activate. In addition, Brimstone Energy is in Chevron’s Technology Ventures Catalyst program.
Brimstone Energy and Cody Finke hold patents on their cement-making technology, for example this and this. My understanding (as a non-chemist) is that the patents refer to the cement-making part of their technology.
I could not find a lot of detailed information on the device. But if you want to operate a device onboard a spacecraft, it should be extremely reliable and low-energy-consuming. Both these aspects are certainly interesting in other contexts as well.
Aside from the SBIR project, Skyre also makes a device that converts CO2 into fuels (e.g. methanol) and commodity chemicals (e.g. formic acid). When you look at the schematic below (from Skyre’s website), and look at the buttons of the device, you get a sense of the size of the device:
Verdox is an ARPA-E project. ARPA-E is the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, at the U.S. Department of Energy. Co-founder and CTO at Verdox, Sahag Voskian, is the principal investigator of their SBIR grant. Since the SBIR grant description talks about “carbon capture from streams”, I first thought that Verdox does carbon capture but not carbon removal.
But then I did a 360° search on Verdox and Sahag Voskian in Mergeflow, in order to get some more context (so far, verdox.com does not have much content yet).
If I understand it correctly, here is how their approach to carbon capture and removal is new: In order to adsorb CO2, you need a material called “sorbent”. And traditionally, one would vary temperature and pressure so that these sorbents do their job. And this requires a tremendous amount of energy. By contrast, Verdox uses electricity to trigger the sorbent, which requires a lot less energy. It’s my understanding that this becomes possible by using quinones, which are organic compounds.
My search also turned up some patents, for example:
Related: Using patent classes for concept search.
Some carbon capture and removal R&D collaboration networks
Now let’s move from companies to science. Although in this case, there is a strong overlap, as you will see below.
For this section of my article, I used Mergeflow’s network graphs tool to discover and explore some of the more prominent R&D collaboration networks. As explained in another article, on how you get better search results for tech discovery, Mergeflow uses co-authorship networks, not citation networks. This is because citation networks usually take years to grow. Co-authorship networks are much more current.
So, what follows are some co-authorship networks, along with some example papers, for carbon capture and removal. And keep in mind that for this search, I only looked at publications from January 2020 until now (March 2021). Furthermore, I used the names of the most prominently featuring institutions from each network as headline. But each network also includes researchers from other universities and research institutes.
University of Minnesota and Huazhong University of Science and Technology
Eric Ganz, Hui Zhang and Li-Ming Yang play central roles in this network.
From what I understand, metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are at the center of their research. Here is a recent example paper:
According to Wikipedia, MOFs are porous polymers.
And according to Mergeflow, MOFs have seen increasing R&D activity over the past five years:
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Jennifer Wilcox, Noah McQueen, Peter Psarras, Jiajun He, Hélène Pilorgé and Kourosh Kian are the most central researchers in this network:
We encountered Jennifer Wilcox already, when we looked at the SBIR grant for Community Energy. This is the overlap between business and science I referred to above.
Here is an example paper, Hélène Pilorgé is the first author:
Interestingly Hélène Pilorgé also works at Carbon Direct, one of the investors at Svante (see above).
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cameron Halliday, Alan Hatton, Nil Ozbek and Miao Wang are the most-connected scientists in the MIT carbon capture and removal network. And, another science-business connection, Sahag Voskian (see the section on Verdox above) is part of the network as well.
My layperson’s understanding of this group’s work is that their focus is on energy-efficient sorbent materials (the materials that adsorb the CO2). Plus the materials in the wider context, so that one can build a carbon capture system with compatible materials (so that, for example, issues like corrosive oxidation are avoided). Here is an example paper:
When you do a centrality analysis of a network, you can identify important nodes in the network. “Important” here means “if this node didn’t exist, the network would fall apart into individual sub-networks”.
For the scientist network around Zhejiang University, Jun Liu forms such a node. I marked him with a blue rectangle in the screenshot from Mergeflow below:
Here is one of his most recent publications:
The idea here is to use biomass-derived materials for CO2 capture. In other words, using sustainable materials as sorbents for carbon capture.
Carbon capture and removal: What are the numbers?
To wrap things up, let’s look at some numbers. How much impact can some of the technologies I described above actually have?
According to the IEA, in 2019, global energy-related CO2 emissions were 33,000,000,000 tons. I don’t know if “energy-related” also includes transport, for example. But let’s take this number as a lower bound.
Then, for the technologies I described in this article, and where I could get numbers, we have:
- Carbon Clean Solutions say that since 2009, they have captured (not removed) 905,566 tons CO2. So this is roughly 82,000 tons of CO2 per year.
- Svante say that one of their plants captures ca. 1,000,000 tons of CO2 per year.
(I assume that for the other technologies, it is simply too early to tell)
So, if we wanted to go to “zero new CO2 emissions” just by using these technologies, we could either scale up Carbon Clean Solutions by a factor of 402,000, or build 33,000 Svante plants.
I know that these technologies are not the only ones out there. And according to a report by the Global CCS Institute, which you can request here, “CCS facilities currently  in operation can capture and permanently store around 40,000,000 tons of CO2 every year”.
So currently, we emit at least…
…of which we can currently capture…
And this doesn’t even include the CO2 that is in the atmosphere already. I guess this really drives home the enormity of the challenge.
Featured image of a carbon capture facility from Wikimedia.