CarbonCapture wants to take carbon removal down the cost curve

The aptly named startup just raised $80 million in private funding to try to prove out its swappable” CO2-absorbing machines.
By Maria Gallucci

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In an open field, a forklift hoists a large rectangular container onto a long row of similar containers
An artist's rendering shows CarbonCapture's modular direct air capture system. (CarbonCapture)

When CarbonCapture emerged from stealth mode in 2021, the Los Angeles–based startup had a unique vision for carbon removal: small-scale, modular devices that would be hauled around the country on the back of flatbed trucks. Customers could order a few or many modules, adding more over time, to pull carbon dioxide directly from the sky. Then they’d either it bury the CO2 underground or use to make industrial products, like low-carbon concrete.

Now, CarbonCapture is zeroing in on a more familiar plan: building a massive array of CO2-sucking machines and injecting the planet-warming gas into deep geologic formations.

This week, the company said it had raised $80 million from investors to begin deploying its technology for the first time. The Series A financing includes a $35 million round closed in 2021, plus a new $45 million round from investors including Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, the venture capital arm of Saudi Aramco and the financial-services division of German industrial giant Siemens.

The funding represents one of the latest and largest infusions of private dollars into direct air capture — a contentious field that is nevertheless gaining traction with investors, policymakers and energy experts as a potential tool for avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Critics of direct air capture say the technology threatens to divert scarce funding away from the far more urgent task of developing and deploying clean energy technology; at worst, it risks providing a smokescreen for fossil fuel producers to keep extracting oil and gas. But proponents, and the latest U.N. climate report, argue that some form of carbon removal will be necessary if the world is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

CarbonCapture first formed in 2019 at the Idealab incubator in Pasadena, California. The company is developing a solid sorbent” technology that involves using industrial fans to pass air through carbon sponges that chemically bind with the CO2 in the air. Steam and pressure — and lots of electricity — are required to separate the gas from the sorbent. The carbon can then be piped underground and permanently stored, or used for other purposes, such as making e-fuels” for planes and ships.

Adrian Corless, the CEO of CarbonCapture, said the startup is mainly focused on improving its sponge materials to make it easier and cheaper to soak up CO2. CarbonCapture is also designing its machines in such a way that the sorbents, which naturally deplete over time, can be seamlessly replaced with newer, better versions without having to rebuild other equipment — not unlike swapping out the ink cartridges in your printer.

An artistic rendering shows a modular direct air capture machine being added to a stack of devices. (CarbonCapture)

The future of direct air capture is going to be based on the ability to deploy lots of hardware and drive costs down,” Corless told Canary Media this week. And that’s going to be largely underpinned by materials-science improvements in the sorbents. All those things are central to the evolution of the industry.”

Capturing CO2 directly from the air with machines is considered the most expensive form of carbon dioxide removal — a broad set of emerging approaches that includes improving soil health, burying bricks of carbon-rich biomass and spreading crushed rocks over empty fields. In order for direct air capture systems to be widely adopted, today’s costs will need to fall from roughly $400 to $1,000 per metric ton of CO2 to ideally around $100 per metric ton before 2050.

The Frontier coalition cited the potential cost reductions from CarbonCapture’s swappable” cartridges when selecting the startup for an advance market commitment” last fall. Frontier’s members include Stripe, Alphabet, Meta and other tech giants, which plan to collectively spend nearly $1 billion on permanent carbon-removal services by 2030.

In November, Frontier agreed to pay CarbonCapture $20 million to remove 45,000 metric tons of CO2 by 2028. Another $26.6 million will go to the startup Heirloom to remove 26,900 metric tons of CO2 by 2030. Heirloom is using giant trays of limestone to soak up CO2 at its first commercial plant in Tracy, California.

CarbonCapture’s design means it’s not locked into using a single generation of sorbents in a massive facility,” Hannah Bebbington, the strategy lead at Frontier, told Canary Media at the time. It means they can make their large facilities more modular in nature and come down the cost curve more quickly.”

Another major driver of direct air capture’s sky-high prices is its enormous energy use. To that end, Corless said CarbonCapture aims to reduce its per-ton energy consumption by more than 50 percent between now and 2030.

Initially, CarbonCapture envisioned deploying its first modular direct air capture (DAC) devices at a sprawling mine site. Some of its earliest investors included Rio Tinto, a global mining giant that’s partnering with Talon Metals Corp. on a nickel, copper and cobalt mine in central Minnesota. The companies announced in 2021 that they set a long-term goal to capture and inject CO2 into ultramafic formations beneath the site.

At that time, CarbonCapture said it would have its first functional prototype online by early 2022 and achieve commercial-scale deployment within two years” after that. The startup hasn’t hit either target just yet.

We’re not where we’d hoped to be, but that’s also not unusual when you’re developing this kind of infrastructure,” Corless said. At the same time, we have made some really significant shifts in our focus around [sorbent] materials that are ending us up in a much better place, in terms of what the technology can do and what our cost structures are.”

CarbonCapture is still pursuing plans to deploy projects for industrial customers, including mining outfits and small-scale concrete makers. But much of its focus today is on designing a megaton-scale DAC system that aligns with the U.S. Department of Energy’s well-funded program to deploy direct air capture nationwide — as well as with the 45Q tax credit, which provides incentives for injecting CO2 into certain geological formations.

Dozens of rows of metal containers amid a vast desert landscape
An artist's rendering shows CarbonCapture's 5-megaton Project Bison facility planned for southwest Wyoming. (CarbonCapture)

The DOE has appropriated more than $11 billion to support the fledgling technology, including a $3.5 billion initiative to build four DAC hubs,” two of which are still to be announced.

Last August, the federal agency selected CarbonCapture for a $12.5 million grant to begin an engineering and design study for a 200,000-metric-ton facility in southwest Wyoming. That DAC array will feed into the company’s Project Bison, which is intended to capture 5 million metric tons of CO2 per year by 2030. CarbonCapture’s partner in the projects, Frontier Carbon Solutions, recently received permits from Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality to inject CO2 into three deep Class VI wells.

Still, the partners will need to do more than develop DAC machines and CO2 injection wells to have a successful project. Running the DAC facility will likely require hundreds of megawatts’ worth of electricity — and today, nearly three-quarters of Wyoming’s electricity supply comes from coal-fired power plants. CarbonCapture says it is working with leaders in Wyoming to develop more wind, solar and other carbon-free energy sources in the state and region.

We need to make sure that we’re actually getting net carbon benefits out of running the machines,” Corless said.

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.