How shrinking carbon capture could help it scale up

Startups are vying to miniaturize this potentially climate-saving technology.
By Julian Spector

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A pipe used to carry liquid CO2 (Michael Urban/Getty Images)

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Love it or hate it, people are going to spend billions of dollars trying to pull carbon dioxide out of the air in the hopes of keeping the climate from going totally off the rails.

Typically, direct air capture concepts are big-budget projects, sometimes costing $1 billion for a single facility. That’s a lot of money to risk on novel technology with an unproven business model.

Carbon capture, then, may be ripe for going modular. If it’s possible to start sucking up carbon with smaller devices that are cheaper and faster to install than the megaprojects, this could be the way to scale an industry.

That’s the strategy taken by creatively named carbon-capture startup CarbonCapture.

  • The company unstealthed this week with a $35 million round from investors including Prime Movers Lab, Marc Benioff’s Time Ventures and international mining and metals company Rio Tinto.
  • The startup emerged from Idealab, the incubator in Pasadena, California that also spawned cleantech ventures Energy Vault and Heliogen.

CarbonCapture’s devices are small enough to fit on a truck, CEO Adrian Corless told Canary Media’s Jeff St. John.

Corless thinks a modular approach could better match the nascent market opportunities for the technology. Carbon capture could be vital to solving the climate crisis, but it still costs too much to meet the price points that developers and government incentive structures can support.

Other technologies are very complex and take enormous scale to take the cost down,” he said. CarbonCapture, by contrast, expects to have its first pilot project online by early 2022. The pilot is being conducted with Talon, a metals company that is partnering with investor Rio Tinto on a nickel, copper and cobalt mine in Minnesota.

According to CarbonCapture’s plan for scaling up that first pilot,​“within two years, we’ll have a commercial-scale deployment that won’t cost $1 billion,” he said. 

It’s dangerous to claim a firm commercialization timeline before actually building your first installation. But coming in at less than $1 billion? That should be doable.

Read on in Jeff’s article for a primer on where carbon-capture costs need to fall to be viable and what other approaches are underway.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.