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Carbon capture startup raises $80 million for one of climate tech's holy grails

Capturing the carbon dioxide that's in the atmosphere and either converting it into useful materials or permanently storing it underground is one of climate technology's holy grails.

It's a difficult proposition, because the solution needs to be less energy intensive than the processes it's hoping to reverse and, ideally, needs to be powered by renewable energy. That's because it's not enough to just capture the carbon dioxide from existing operations out of the atmosphere -- the world needs to remove thousands of gigatons of carbon dioxide that's already in the atmosphere.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinout, Verdox, believes it has a solution to the problem -- and has just raised $80 million to commercialize it.

The money came from Breakthrough Energy Ventures (the energy investment firm funded by the world's wealthiest tech billionaires), Lowercarbon Capital (funded by some of the world's other wealthiest tech billionaires) and Prelude Ventures (a longtime investor in climate technologies). "Combating climate change requires the world to prevent further increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and eventually return them to pre-industrial levels," said Brian Baynes, the founder and chief executive of Verdox, in a statement. "Many industries, however, still lack a plan for complete decarbonization, because of the high cost and energy consumption of currently available capture technologies."

Baynes said that Verdox's technology could capture carbon from any industrial source or the air and use up to 70% less energy to do it. It gives the company the ability "to intervene completely," Baynes said.

As Verdox noted in its statement, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations already reached a record high of 420 parts per million last year. On this track, the world will exceed the 2 degree warming scenario which is the outer band of acceptable temperatures agreed upon by the United Nations in global negotiations held last year.

The bottom line is that the world needs to draw down a metric f*ton of CO2 (that's a technical term) to keep global warming from becoming a cataclysmic problem.

"The high energy efficiency and scalability of Verdox’s technology could enable the company to play a major role in addressing the carbon removal challenge," said Carmichael Roberts from BEV, in a statement. "This innovation has provided a paradigm change for both industrial and air capture – and the Verdox team has made great strides to reduce the concept to economical commercial practice."

The company's core technology is like a giant battery that absorbs carbon dioxide from the air (or a stream of waste gas) as it's charging up and then releases the gas when the battery is discharged.

As the battery charges, an electrochemical reaction takes place on the surface of each stack of electrodes. Coated with a compound called polyanthraquinone, which is integrated with carbon nanotubes, the electrodes have an affinity for CO2 and react with its molecules in an airstream or gas feed -- even at low concentrations, according to an MIT report.

“All of this is at ambient conditions — there’s no need for thermal, pressure, or chemical input. It’s just these very thin sheets, with both surfaces active, that can be stacked in a box and connected to a source of electricity,” said one of the technology's inventors, Sahag Voskian.

In a working power plant, sets of "batteries" could. be set up to operate in parallel with flue gas directed at one set for capture and another set discharges pure CO2 for either utilization or storage.

Lab scale projects announced in 2019 had the technology operating at 7,000 charging and discharging cycles with a 30 percent efficiency loss over time. The company estimated at the time it could ramp that up to 50,000 cycles.

Ultimately, Voskian and his team told MIT that they could manufacture the tech at scale using nothing more specified than a roll-to-roll process -- like a printing press.

“We have developed very cost-effective techniques,” Voskian said.

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