With a $1.1 million seed round Canadian startup CO2 Lock is working to test and scale its novel carbon capture, storage, and utilization process: carbon mineralization.
Carbon mineralization is a process where rocks react with carbon in the air and become a solid mineral, which can later be diluted and utilized or injected permanently into the ground.
According to a study from Geoscience BC, an earth science research and data firm, in British Columbia alone, there are enough ultramafic rocks, rocks that commonly have a lot of brucite, to 56 gigatons of CO2, or 800 years of the Canadian province’s emissions.
However, the International Energy Agency reports that CCUS operations are currently not on track to capture the 1.2 gigatons needed by 2050. Right now, we capture less than 4% of that. Could brucite-based mineralization be one method of increasing that number?
Currently, within the scientific community, there’s a hypothesis that 25 million years ago, the collision of India and Asia that uplifted the Tibetan Plataeu and formed the Himalayan Mountains was a key driver of changes within the atmosphere in a period known as the Cenozoic.
While this theory is still regarded as a hypothesis, scientists do know that this era was marked by significant cooling, which has a correlation with the weathering of silicate rock on the Himalayas which in turn, sequestered a lot of carbon.
One startup wants to recreate this to tackle the current amount of carbon in the atmosphere and cool the planet. But instead of crashing two continents into each other and forming a gargantuan mountain mass, the startup is taking a different approach, scaling down from mountains to minerals with mineralization.
As one paper published in the 2021 issue of Nature puts it, the cooling that happened during the Cenozoic underscores the importance of rocks in helping to control the evolution of atmospheric emissions over the last 65 million years.
According to CO2 Lock, a spin-off from FPX Nickel, a Canadian resource company developing “environmentally friendly nickel” to be used in electric vehicles and batteries, it is in the business to make this level of weathering and CO2 storage “happen again.”
Last week, the startup raised a $1.1 million seed round for that very purpose.
The million-dollar mineral its work focuses on is brucite, which according to the startup’s research, “outperforms most commonly used minerals, such as those found in basalts,” for a process known as “carbon mineralization,” a rock reaction where carbon dioxide becomes a solid mineral, such as a carbonate, which as the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) explains, captures carbon so it “cannot escape back to the atmosphere.”
Essentially, rock weathering stores carbon forever. However, because it's a glacial-paced process that happens over geologic epochs, there has been an avalanche of startups in recent years emerging to speed up the process.
Most of these startups use basalts, a long-studied rock that not only is responsible for 30-35% of the CO2 naturally sequestered by rocks but has a litany of co-benefits for agricultural processes, which is why many rock weathering startups have capitalized on cropland by partnering with farmers to both improve yields while capturing carbon by sprinkling rock powder on its soil.
But CO2 Lock is rocking with a slightly different approach.
CO2 Lock takes three avenues to the mineralization process. The first, like many others, has agricultural and forestry benefits. Known as “ex-situ water mineralization,” this process extracts water from brucite-rich rocks and injects a CO2 stream into the water to mineralize it, which the company says can then be used for agriculture, forestry, and other commercial purposes.
CO2 Lock’s second method is called “ex-situ processed materials” by which the company churns or waters down processed rock and injects it into materials for industrial applications.
The last is referred to as “in situ CO2 injection,” and unlike the last two that utilize carbon, this method injects the C02-rich fluid into rocks, storing it underground permanently.
According to the startup, the last method is similar to other large-scale carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) projects like Project Orca in Iceland: a joint venture between the companies Carbfix and Climeworks that utilizes basalts to permanently mineralize CO2 in situ. It is also the world’s first and largest CO2 removal plant.
Currently, the plant has a capacity of up to 4,000 tons of CO₂ captured per year, which is like taking almost 900 cars off the road annually, showing how far we still are from the planetary level of carbon removal demanded by the climate crisis.
As the International Energy Agency (IEA) calculates, CCUS is not on track to help reach net zero by 2050, a year by which, these giant carbon-sucking machines need to be extracting 1.2 gigatons of CO2 per year. Currently, the 40 commercial plants in operation globally are capturing 45 megatons of CO2 annually. That’s about 4%... of one gigaton.
But could the use of brucite mineralization increase this number?
In 2018, Geoscience BC, an earth science research and data firm in British Columbia, released an independent study mapping the distribution and volume of ultramafic rocks in British Columbia. Ultramafic rocks are rocks that commonly have a wide distribution of brucite, which reacts quickly with CO2 in the air.
The study found that not only do 75% of ultramafic rock bodies in British Columbia have a level of magnesium that suggests extensive carbon capture ability but could also have a carbon sequestration capacity of 56 gigatons of CO2. That’s more than 800 years of greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 British Columbian rates, the researchers calculated.
That means that buried in deposits of crystalized magnesium, limestone, and more, could potentially be 80 decades worth of carbon capture possibilities. However, it’s a matter of accessing it, and ramping up the technology to meet deadlines set by agencies like the IEA.
As Cooper Quinn, the CEO of CO2 Lock says on the company’s website, “We launched this business to solve global problems at scale by applying our decades of geological and engineering expertise to the biggest challenge we face.”
With the $1.1 million seed round, the company plans to continue fieldwork and sample collection and utilize the rocks for its processes. In addition to a wholly owned project site in British Columbia, the company utilizes an FPX database identifying the most brucite-rich deposits around the world.
In March, after six years of lab research and fieldwork, the startup completed its first round of test work, but with a plan toward commercialization, the team plans to conduct pilot-plant trials in 2024 and demonstrate their first commercial project two years later, going from, as the company puts it on its website, to one kilogram of CO2 in the lab, to hundreds to thousands captured next year, to “100,000 kilograms a year of CO2” for its first planned demonstration project.
Still, only time will tell if its mineralization method can rock the world of carbon capture.