Scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air is essential if humans are to limit global warming, experts say, and a California startup says it can do just that, using limestone as a sponge. absorbs carbon.
San Francisco-based Heirloom Carbon has become a hot name in the new acquisition technology sector, even sealing a deal with Microsoft to help the Windows maker achieve its ambitions of zero-carbon.
Governments are embracing similar innovations to meet their climate goals because CO2 emissions remain too high to reduce the greenhouse effect that causes the destruction of climate change.
Extracting CO2 directly from the atmosphere is the “time machine” that will lead us back to cleaner air, according to Heirloom cofounder and CEO Shashank Samala.
“If you want to reverse climate change and go back to where things were, removing carbon is the closest thing we have to actually removing legacy emissions from the air,” he said.
Carbon capture will be a central topic of discussion at the COP28 climate talks, which will take place in Dubai from November 30 to December 12.
Many see it as a need to move closer to a zero-emission world, while others fear it is seen as an easy ticket to avoid making the sacrifices needed to slow down climate change.
The UN Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which oversees COP meetings, considers the deployment of carbon capture and storage systems inevitable if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Heirloom has set itself the goal of ridding the atmosphere of one billion tons of CO2 per year by 2035—without encouraging companies to continue burning fossil fuels.
That would help put a dent in the between 10 and 20 billion tons of carbon that the US National Academy of Sciences says must be eliminated each year between now and the end of the century.
“Heirloom uses limestone, which is a naturally occurring mineral, and we give it superpowers and make it a sponge that can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere,” said cofounder and head of research Noah McQueen.
“We cut the sponge, and we permanently store the CO2 underground,” he added.
Cofounder Samala vividly remembers the storms, droughts, and crushing heat of his childhood in India.
“I remember my mom putting a wet towel on a fan and using that as our air conditioner,” he said.
“Climate change has a disproportionate impact on vulnerable people.”
Samala briefly worked at the fin-tech company Square after his engineering studies in the US and then founded an electronics company.
“But the call for climate change is always there,” he says, with California’s annual wildfires and disappearing coral reefs pushing him toward a career change.
According to the 2018 IPCC report, Samala is reducing carbon capture, a field that desperately needs innovation and investment.
There is no’miracle”
Direct Air Capture (DAC) techniques, such as those developed by Heirloom and Swiss pioneer Climeworks, are different from systems where carbon is captured at the source (CCS), such as factory chimneys.
Heirloom chose limestone because it is available in large quantities and because there is no shortage of storage space.
“In the United States alone, there is enough storage for all the emissions we’ve been putting out since the industrial revolution,” McQueen said.
Will Knapp, cofounder of CCS startup Cocoon, believes that it is easier to capture CO2 directly from the places where it is emitted, such as factories or steel plants, than from the general atmosphere.
Metal-making furnaces can explode with CO2 concentrations of 10 to 30 percent, while the CO2 concentration in the air we breathe is only 0.4 percent, according to Knapp.
Extracting it from the general atmosphere can be “like looking for a needle in a haystack,” he said.
“There is no silver bullet to solve climate change, but we don’t need miracles; we need bullets,” he added.
Heirloom’s Samala holds his company to strict commitments, such as not selling CO2 to businesses that ultimately put it back into the atmosphere.
He also condemned “greenwashing,” in which certain industries, particularly the oil and gas lobby, use vague promises of carbon removal “as a way to distract us.”
“For us to oppose the status quo is very difficult, but that’s what we have to do,” said Samala.