In today’s episode of Hardware to Save a Planet, Dylan talks to Noah McQueen about the concept of direct air capture (DAC), its limitations, evolution, and methodologies. They discuss the essence of direct air capture and its role in restoring balance to the atmosphere through trapping atmospheric CO2 underground into geological structures.
As a Head of Research and Co-Founder at Heirloom, Noah is concentrating his efforts on creating and scaling up the next generation of direct air capture technology to have a positive impact on the climate. Before joining Heirloom, Noah worked at the University of Pennsylvania and Worcester Polytechnic Institute as Graduate Research Assistants, respectively.
According to Noah, Heirloom technology enhances the natural process, known as carbon mineralization, which allows minerals to absorb CO2 from the ambient air in days rather than years. They provide the most cost-effective and scalable direct air capture method by integrating the best of engineering and nature.
DAC encompasses a range of engineering technologies that use a solid sorbent or a liquid solvent that selectively binds to CO2 and removes it from the environment. The captured CO2 can then be released during a regeneration process by leveraging a CO2 cycle, perceptible changes in temperature, pressure, or electrochemical potential, where precise circumstances are based on the sorbent or solvent material’s qualities. The regeneration process produces a high-purity CO2 stream suitable for storage or utilization and a sorbent or solvent material that can be reused.
If you want to learn more about the concept and approaches of direct air capture, check out the key takeaways of this episode or the transcript below.
- 11:44 – 12:40 – The Approach of Heirloom on direct air capture (DAC): Heirloom utilizes naturally occurring minerals to remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere. Specifically. In the current landscape for direct air capture, Heirloom has the technologies that can be divided into two by two matrix; The front end: this is how they uptake CO2 with the capital and operating costs on the front end of the process. The backend or the regeneration, which is how they produce a pure stream of CO2.
- 12:4 – 12:59 – Heirloom’s Most Innovative Concept: Heirloom’s most innovative concept is in that front-end capture part, where they have low-cost earth-abundant alkaline minerals to capture CO2, and this is a different concept from other approaches, which typically use specially engineered materials.
- 12:59 – 17:08 – Direct Air Capture Process of Heirloom: Heirloom Carbon Technologies offers a unique approach to DAC by utilizing naturally occurring and energetically advantageous carbon mineralization reactions. Natural minerals are employed instead of synthetic sorbents in this method, and capture efficiency is improved by increasing the air-sorbent contact area rather than relying on driven air.
- 28:26 – 29:58 – Scaling and Deploying DAC Systems: Heirloom’s regeneration systems are essential for removing billions of tons of CO2 by 2035. Rather than constructing massive plants in one location, they aim to develop a setup on a seed by seed basis until it reaches millions.
- 38:04 – 39:00 – Approaches for Getting Started – Newcomers should learn more about what’s available, find something that speaks to them on a personal level, and be inspired to participate in climate technology. Because that will fuel their perseverance, optimism, and ability to seize the opportunities that present themselves.
Dylan Garrett: Hardware to Save a Planet explores the technical innovations that are giving us hope in the fight against climate change. Each episode focuses on a specific climate challenge and explores an emerging physical technology solution with the person bringing it into reality. I’m your host, Dylan Garrett.
Dylan: Hello, and welcome to a very special episode of Hardware to Save a Planet. Today we’re going to be talking about direct air capture, or DAC, which is a process of pulling CO2 out of ambient air. We now know that doing that on a scale of 10 billion tons per year is essential for limiting global warming to one and a half degrees Celsius. We’re lucky enough today to be sitting down with Noah McQueen, co-founder and head of research at Heirloom Carbon, which has a really innovative approach to DAC. Noah is not only co-founder of Heirloom, but also a leading scientist in the field of direct air capture. Welcome, Noah. Really excited to have you. Thank you for joining us.
Noah McQueen: Thanks for having me.
Dylan: I’m excited to hear about Heirloom, but before we do that, I’d love our listeners to get to know you a little bit. What led you to this place where you’re focused on climate change? Feel free to go back to childhood if it’s relevant, what inspired you along the way?
Noah: I think that’s a great question. I’ve really always been motivated to use my knowledge in a way that could have a positive impact on society. Many other people didn’t exactly know what that was, but it was the reason that I went into chemical engineering. I felt like it was a way to apply a love of math and science in a way that could have a bigger impact on society. Initially, I actually thought I was going to go into biopharmaceuticals, create life-saving medications, but I stumbled upon carbon captures specifically and I had the opportunity to work with professor Jennifer Wilcox, who is a pioneer in both carbon capture and Direct Air Capture as well as the sustainable landscape more broadly. I had the opportunity to work with her in a laboratory environment and I fell in love with it.
Since then, I worked on point source carbon capture, capturing CO2 from things like power plants, direct air capture, carbon mineralization, or using minerals to capture CO2 from both the air and from point sources. I’ve spanned across a series of different fields almost from experimentation to process design and optimization to the economics and life cycle analysis for some of these technologies and now have been working in the field for about six years. As time progresses and we get more of the recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the IPCC, which is much easier to say, the urgency to deploy these technologies has become really central to me. At this point, I couldn’t see myself really doing anything else.
Dylan: That’s awesome. Where along that path did you start to think about what Heirloom Carbon is doing today? How did that come about?
Noah: That’s a really fun story. Initially, I was working on more quote-unquote traditional direct air capture using solvents and absorbance and doing some of the economic analysis for those technologies. Maybe my second year in grad school, a professor by the name of Peter Kellman approached Jen, who was then my advisor, about this process that would marry natural properties of carbon mineralization or the ways that minerals naturally take up CO2 from the atmosphere, which occurs on the orders of decades to centuries with direct air capture, which is much more industrial technology-focused approach to removing CO2 from the air.
I was actually charged with the initial process iterations. What could this look like? What should it look like? Should we use engineered systems? Should we use a passive process? What this really allowed us to do was figure out that passive mineralization really achieves a low-cost, pretty scalable process that could be used for direct air capture.
Dylan: Can you put it in the context of direct air capture generally? What is Heirloom doing and how does that relate to what the world of direct air capture looks like?
Noah: That’s a really great question. Heirloom is using naturally occurring minerals to remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere, specifically, we use limestone. In the current landscape for direct air capture, we typically have these technologies that you can divide into a two-by-two matrix. You’ve got the front end, which is how we uptake CO2 and you’ve got the capital and operating costs on the front end of the process. Then you’ve got the back end or the regeneration, which is how you produce a pure stream of CO2 and you can think of that as capital and operating costs. Where heirloom is truly innovative is really on that front-end capture part.
We have low-cost, earth-abundant, alcohol and minerals to capture CO2. This is different from other approaches, which typically use specialty engineered materials and we don’t use those materials. Instead, our two biggest contributions are limestone and steel, and those are two of the largest global commodities. That really allows us to innovate within existing global supply chains however strained they might be at the current moment.
The second part of that is that we perform direct air capture passively by allowing the mineral to naturally uptake CO2. Traditional direct air capture approaches or existing direct air capture approaches, use large fans to move large volumes of air through these engineered contactor systems that allow you to overcome a pressure drop. Essentially you need to put in a significant amount of energy to allow that air to move through your system and to properly utilize the assortment that’s inside. We don’t rely on that and we don’t rely on capital intensive structures to actually capture the CO2. Both of those bring down the capital and operating costs of that capture side of the matrix.
Then finally, we’re trying to design a very modular technology and that modularity allows us to repeatedly manufacture the same process units, and we can leverage mass manufacturing in some economies of scale to really bring our technology to low cost. I guess summarizing that we use low-cost materials, we use a passive natural uptake process with our minerals, and we’re also designing an incredibly modular technology that sets Heirloom apart from some of the existing direct air capture approaches.
Dylan: Let’s walk through the steps a little bit. The natural inputs you have are limestone and steel. The limestone is used to absorb, or the limestone absorbs the CO2.
Dylan: Maybe you can walk through the steps and how those two inputs are used.
Noah: Let me take a step back and provide an overview of the process that Heirloom is working on. Very high level, we use naturally available minerals, particularly limestone or calcium carbonate to capture CO2 from the atmosphere. In our process that limestone is sent into a reactor and at temperatures around 900 degrees Celsius. Calcium carbonate breaks apart into two parts, calcium oxide, and CO2. We can capture that CO2 in a near pure form and store that underground to keep it sequestered away from the atmosphere. The calcium oxide we’ve produced from that reaction is highly thirsty for CO2.
We’ve essentially given the mineral superpowers and it wants to take out CO2 from the atmosphere. What we can do with that is we can spread it on trays, put those trays into racks and allow it to come in contact with air naturally. In less than a week, we actually reproduce that calcium carbonate material. We can take that calcium carbonate now and feed it back into that reactor once again, breaking in the part into calcium oxide and CO2, and this time that CO2 that we’ve captured from the atmosphere is directly from the air.
We’ve removed CO2 from air, and we can reuse that calcium monoxide to capture more CO2 from the atmosphere. It’s really a cyclic process and the inputs, the limestone is absorbed into the material that’s taking the CO2 out of the air in the cyclic process and the steel is our other main input and it provides the structure for those tray back configuration that we’re talking about.
Dylan: Got you. This is where I wish I had paid more attention in high school chemistry. When I was reading about this, tell me if this is a useful analogy, but it sounds– I think of it as a sponge. Calcium Carbonate is a sponge that has CO2 in it. You heat it up, squeeze the sponge and the CO2 is separated from the calcium oxide.
Dylan: That CO2, then you can store and inject underground. That calcium oxide is then an empty sponge, which is thirsty for the carbon dioxide again and you can just repeat the cycle, what? Indefinitely?
Noah: Yes, absolutely. That’s a great analogy for the process.
Dylan: Okay. Those inputs are one-time inputs for each of your plants, the calcium carbonate, or the limestone you mine at once or you extract it from the earth once and you can use it indefinitely?
Noah: Yes. We’re currently probing what the limits of that are. We haven’t cycled it indefinitely. There may be some in the threshold at which we can’t use it anymore. There may be some losses per cycle that we’ll have to make up with small amounts of calcium carbonate but for the most part, it’s highly cyclable and we’re optimistic that we can do dozens, if not hundreds of cycles with the same material.
Dylan: I should say, there’s an awesome white paper that you’ve shared with me and we’ll put a link in the show notes because it has some really clear diagrams that visualize what we’re talking about. It’s a tough topic for podcasting, but those visuals are really helpful. The other thing I understand about this is this is a natural process that occurs naturally, but you’ve found a way to speed it up. Is that right?
Noah: We have, yes.
Dylan: Can you talk about how you speed it up?
Noah: It is one of our key technical challenges, maintaining the high CO2 uptake rate through our material. That’s how we give it superpowers and it’s like the bread and butter of what our process is on the carbonation side. We combine geochemistry with the knowledge of equipment design and industrial automation and bring all of those components together to control how these minerals take up CO2 from the atmosphere and that’s one of key factors in achieving that low cost. It’s a little bit of bread and butter, and we’ll talk about it hopefully later this year.
Dylan: Yes, cool. The punch line is this natural process typically takes what? Months, years, is sped up to the timescale of what is it? Days?
Noah: Days, yes. We’re on the order of three to seven days for any given conditions.
Dylan: That’s a great overview of what Heirloom is doing and how it compares to other DAC companies. I’m curious when you look at this whole carbon removal marketplace, how do you view these other companies doing direct air capture? Do you see them as competition? Is there enough CO2 to go around and it’s all hands on deck situation? How do you look at that?
Noah: Yes, I really do think that we’re going to need a portfolio of different solutions in order to truly achieve our climate goals. As you mentioned, in the beginning, 10 billion tons of carbon removal is nothing to scoff at. I believe I’ve heard an analogy that it’s like building the oil and gas industry over 10 times in the next decade and that’s a lot of infrastructure. That’s a lot of innovation. That’s a lot of movement of CO2, both in the atmosphere and in processes that we’re going to have to manage.
I hope everyone is successful. I don’t view it so much as competitively as I do, that we’re going to need a lot of different solutions in order to actually be successful. I do think that a handful of highly scalable, potentially low-cost companies will come out as forerunners in the field of direct air capture. Overall, we need as many shots on goal as we can get. It’s just what the climate needs too.
Dylan: You mentioned cost. What does the cost side of things look like for Heirloom?
Noah: We definitely think we have a pathway to under $100 per ton of CO2 with a target of under $50 per ton of CO2. It’s that two-by-two matrix that I was talking about where we really brought down the cost on the capture side of things, both capital and operating, and are working on bringing down the costs on the back-end regeneration side as well, both capital and operating. We think that with increasing scale, as well as optimizations inside of our process, we can really achieve that and, of course, continued investment in research and development.
Dylan: Actually, at that level, you’re cost-competitive with and check me on this, but my understanding is a lot of other permanent removal options, offset options are on the order of hundreds or low thousands of dollars per ton. Is that correct?
Noah: Yes, absolutely. All of the technologies are still up and coming too. We’re one of the fastest, I mentioned earlier as modularity, which will hopefully allow us to come down in cost faster than some other approaches.
Dylan: Can you talk about that modularity? What does that look like?
Noah: Yes, I think when I talk about modularity, it’s really a couple of different things. The first one is how you design a process to be repeatedly manufactured. Modularity in its core refers to the ability for a technology to be partitioned into smaller pieces, essentially. What it enables is mass manufacturing. It opens up a realm of repeated improvements. When you’re making something over and over and over again, you can quickly iterate over what you’re making, to make it better each time you do an iteration. Modularity not only enables that quick iteration but also enables you to repeatedly stamp out the same part over and over and over again. That allows you to come down the cost curve much quicker.
Technologies that exhibit modularity typically also exhibit higher learning rates in the framework of rights law. We saw this for solar as a good example, as well as certain other types of technologies. Other types of systems for carbon removal, specifically direct air capture, you see that they’re massive and they’ve got a lot of interconnectivity and touchpoints between different aspects of the process. One of the key aspects of what we’re trying to design is minimizing that complexity and trying to create this highly scalable system that exhibits more of that component-by-component modularity. Hopefully, that was clear.
Dylan: Yes, it’s a great answer. You talk about modularity as being really important to come down that cost curve. What are some other major barriers in getting there as you scale?
Noah: It’s a really interesting question. One of the other key factors of achieving low cost is the amount of energy. You can think of the absolute floor for the cost of a carbon removal system as the energy input since that is most of the operating cost. Capital costs, you can kind of analyze a way essentially, over long periods of time and operation, but the energy requirements are there and steadfastly there. One challenge that is uniform across all direct air capture approaches is that removing CO2 from the atmosphere is energetically unfavorable. That means you have a large energy requirement just to separate CO2 from a very, very dilute stream.
In air, CO2 makes up about 400 parts per million. In comparison, coming out of a flue gas stack from an energy production facility, say natural gas, it’s about 4% to 6%. Its orders of magnitude more dilute in air than you get from some of these point sources. That inherently means that we require significantly more energy into the process, based on thermodynamic limits. For us, pushing our process closer to those thermodynamic limits creates a more energy-efficient direct air capture system and pushes us closer towards those $50 to $100 per ton target.
We also plan to use renewable energy. We actually believe that the cost curves of renewable energy will continue to make our techno economics work, even in more conservative cases where the projections for the cost of renewable energy stay a bit higher than those minimum projections.
Dylan: I’m just thinking of scaling to a billion tons. Are things like land availability becoming a challenge or the injection sites for storing the CO2?
Noah: Yes, so for direct air capture, land use is actually a pro of direct air capture as a method to take CO2 out of the atmosphere because it requires so much less land than things like afforestation or reforestation, or purpose-grown biomass, or crops that intentionally take CO2 out of the air. Land availability isn’t necessarily an issue for direct air capture. When it comes to injection, there are abundant places to put the CO2 underground. In North America alone, we have the capacity to store hundreds of billions of tons of CO2. That is characterized by geology.
You can put CO2 in a lot of different places. There’s sedimentary basins, which hold oil and gas for tens of millions of years where we can put the CO2 back underground. There’s also other types of minerals such as the salts where if you inject CO2 and water, you can actually mineralize the CO2 underground. Companies like Carbfix are looking into that. I think that the joint capacity globally is more than enough than what we need for direct air capture specifically, and including point-source capture from some continued emitters that we can actually capture the CO2 from.
Dylan: What about the demand side of things? Is the demand scaling fast enough to meet these targets, the demand for carbon offsets?
Noah: Yes, demand is a really interesting piece of it. When you think about the current market, what we see is that it’s dominated by voluntary carbon markets. That means there’s companies like Stripe and Shopify and Klarna that are actually paying for carbon removal that will decarbonize their operations and supply chain. These companies are willing to pay a higher price for carbon removal. That will allow us to push technologies down that learning curve and start deploying. I guess currently, that demand is vastly outpacing the supply of high-quality carbon removal.
We have the opposite problem. We have the fact that people are looking for more high-quality carbon removal than we can actually supply. Although, at some point, we’ll need additional incentives, aside from that voluntary market in order to reach the billion-ton scale removal. These voluntary carbon markets will get us to millions of tons, tens of millions of tons. We’ll need compliance markets or mandatory carbon markets policy essentially, to meet those voluntary markets and help push us to a billion tons of carbon removal, which is really where we need to be from a climate impact perspective.
Dylan: Last question on the topic of scaling, just because I think a billion tons is such a big number, right, or 10 billion tons?
Noah: It really is.
Dylan: Are there other knock-on effects you need to be thinking about as you’re building a company like Heirloom? How well all the plants you need to build impact the communities they’re in or what about the effects of the mining for the materials you need? Is there anything like that you think about?
Noah: Yes, absolutely. It’s at the forefront of a lot of what we’re thinking about, actually. We have a lot of stakeholders in our process. For us, a lot of those are frontline communities, those most affected by the climate crisis, as well as where the technology will be deployed. It’s incredibly important to us that we gain enthusiastic consent and support from communities. I would say that’s definitely something that is at the forefront of our minds.
Dylan: Where is Heirloom today, in terms of this journey? Where in the evolution of the company and the technology are you?
Noah: Yes, so we’ve scaled prototypes, and we’re working on putting out our first plant early next year. We’re really excited to be able to go to more of the commercial scale and hopefully get that to deployment early 2023.
Dylan: Do you have a pilot system that’s currently doing direct air capture today?
Noah: Yes, we have a pilot system that’s currently capturing CO2 and we’ll have to deliver– Our target is to deliver our first ton by the end of this year.
Dylan: Okay, nice.
Noah: Yes, it’s exciting.
Dylan: I think I saw you have a purchase agreement with Stripe already and some other customers.
Noah: Yes, we have a couple of Stripe, Shopify, Klarna, Sourceful, where we’re super excited to be working with these companies as they go on their sustainability journeys.
Dylan: This is maybe a silly question, but it makes me wonder. You’re building this company that’s taking all this CO2 out of the air, do you have any guilty climate pleasures where it’s like, “I’m just going to take an extra-long hot shower because I know that I’m out there saving the planet,” or like, “I’m going to have all my beef flown in from Kobe, just because-“
Noah: No. Actually, I do personally try to live what I preach, to an extent. I don’t really eat meat, I try not to have a significant energy footprint. I’m very conscious, but I’m sure there’s ways in which I’m failing. I’m sure just by living in San Francisco, California, I’m failing a little bit, from a carbon footprint perspective, and that there’s more I could be doing. Maybe not a guilty pleasure per se, but I do know that I probably have a bigger footprint than most.
Dylan: It must be satisfying knowing you have such an outsized impact by building this company.
Noah: Yes, I hope so.
Dylan: I’d love to go a little bit deeper into the tech. You’ve touched on it a little bit, but can you talk a little bit about what this just physically looks like?
Noah: In our process, we have the capture portion. The capture portion looks– You can think of them as giant cafeteria racks. It literally is vertical structures that have trays situated on shelves. What that enables us to do is expose a higher surface area of our materials. We can expose more area of material per land area, and it saves on a lot of those land area requirements that we were talking about earlier, allowing us to have a much more minimal footprint. You can imagine giant cafeteria racks, and then we have powder inside of trays. Now, that’s our capture system.
Our regeneration system, you can envision that there’s maybe 50 to 100 of these giant cafeteria racks, and they’re hooked up to a single reactor, and that reactor just looks like a tube in a lot of cases. It looks like a tube and that is heated and the material’s fed in. From an outsider perspective, you see this array of trays, and racks, and probably nothing else to be completely honest. We do hope that we can integrate renewable electricity into this. Maybe you see a roof of solar panels essentially over our facility, but we really do hope that this is something where you can look out and it’s beautiful, both because of what it’s doing and because it’s visually appealing.
Dylan: At least the collection part of it is totally silent, it sounds like. There’s no fans. It’s sitting there just silently collecting the ambient air. Is that right?
Noah: Yes, to an extent. We do occasionally process the material, but it’s not like noise pollution, it’s quiet especially compared to other industrial processes.
Dylan: This is a detailed question, but does the powder expand as it absorbs the CO2?
Noah: Yes. There’s a little bit of an expansion because you get a density change in the material. Calcium oxide is more dense than calcium carbonate. There’s a little bit, but it’s pretty negligible.
Dylan: Got you. You talked a little bit about automation earlier, is the idea that these trays are through automation, transferred from the collection to the regeneration potion and back again, and it’s a fully automated process.
Noah: We’re envisioning this like an automated factory, but taking that and putting it outdoors. We really do want to leverage key pieces of industrial automation in order to make sure we don’t have significant intervention in the process. We use that to both process our trays as well as to take the powder from the contactors that we have back to the regeneration facility. Ideally, all of that will be controlled by software.
Dylan: Where in all this is there any hardware innovation happening, if any?
Noah: I would say, our entire contractor structure is really hardware innovation. That’s the focus of what we’ve been developing. A lot of that hardware is new, it’s innovative. It’s something that hasn’t been used for this application before, being redesigned and re-envisioned for direct air capture. From the way that we expose material to air, to designing those trees and racks, we have an incredible amount of hardware innovation going on behind the scenes.
Dylan: Can you share what some of the big hardware challenges have been? I’d be curious to hear about the modularity piece. When I hear that, I understand you have the collection side and the regeneration side. Those are separate systems which give you some level of modularity because they’re not really interconnected. You probably have physical modularity in the sense that you can stack. You just go as high as you want, potentially with your stacks of trays. What other aspects of modularity I’m not thinking of?
Noah: There’s definitely different degrees of modularity. We can repeatedly manufacture the trays that makeup holding our material, and we can also repeatedly manufacture the physical contactors that those trays fit in. The pieces parts of those contactors, from the way that we hold the trays inside of the contactor to the physical structure of the contactor and all of that, is requiring, and does require a significant amount of innovation in how you think about what are the components that make up the system, and how can we make them as repeatable as possible.
Some of this is designing for manufacturability, some of this is designing for ease of on-site build, and all of that is wrapped up in this modularity that we’re referring to. I think you nailed a lot of it, and it runs even deeper than just the physical design of the equipment.
Dylan: Sometimes the biggest hardware challenge is just taking something that’s working one time in the lab and scaling it to work thousands of times or hundreds of thousands of times in the real world.
Noah: I think that’s a great example too, because we have a process that works in the lab, and we’re making it work in the real world. That in itself requires innovation and iteration and a deep understanding of how the process plays with equipment. That’s something that we’ve gotten a much better grasp on as we’ve continued to develop.
Dylan: Is the cost of the equipment itself a big driver of your total swift cost per ton? Is there a lot of effort to reduce the physical plants, or is it more about the operation costs?
Noah: I would say energy is one of the biggest drivers. We are fairly focused on that between not having fans on the front end of our process, and really being able to almost eliminate energy requirements there, to focusing on how we can minimize energy requirements on the backend. There’s always a push to decrease the capital costs of the systems because that’s what you’ve got to finance. To some extent, the lower we can bring the costs from the capital perspective, the easier financing terms we’ll get, especially in the near term until we have a little bit more dedicated infrastructure as to how we actually finance carbon removal as an ecosystem, which is a whole ‘nother discussion.
Dylan: Is it worth touching on the financing side for a minute, just because it’s so critical to scaling?
Noah: Welcome to, yes.
Dylan: I’m curious what that looks like. I know you closed as series A recently.
Noah: We have wonderful investors, to say the least, and we did just close our Series A led by Ahren Innovation Capital, Carbon Direct, and Breakthrough Energy Ventures. That is a lot of pushing us towards our first deployment. As we start to gain traction, and actually scale, we need other financing mechanisms that can push us to larger and larger scales, including things like that financing, and probably governmental grants and loans at low-interest rates that actually allow us to deploy this.
You can think of it similar to public utilities, and that’s all infrastructure that doesn’t necessarily exist today that will need to be built out to actually sustain some of these technologies as they do scale. The hope is that those infrastructure would come in place as the scaling takes place over the next couple of years. I don’t know if that actually answers your question, but perspective.
Dylan: No, it’s great. Speaking of scale, we’ve hit this a little bit. I’ve seen on your website, Heirloom has a target of removing a billion tons of CO2 by 2035. That’s been about 13 years. You’re launching your first plant next year. Do you have a sense of what kind of renewable capacity a single plant will have?
Noah: That’s a great question. We’re still figuring it out because it really is defined by our regeneration system, but we anticipate tens of thousands of tons of CO2 being removed.
Dylan: It’s a huge, very steep curve to get there, right?
Dylan: I’m curious, how do you wrap your head around that? How does that challenge make you feel as somebody leading this company?
Noah: I’m realistically optimistic. I think we have a really good chance at having a huge impact on climate. The way we really think about our deployments is that a single module of our technology would be tens of thousands of tons of CO2, but that’s one feed at a given site. We can have an initial deployment that allows us to get permitting completed, find an injection partner, get renewable energy set up, and then we can continue to develop that site until it’s at millions, if not tens of millions of tons. We’re still figuring out what the limit would be for a particular site.
It allows us to build it out incrementally and do that at multiple locations. That will enable us to scale much faster than if we were building giant plants in one location and then moving on for another plant in another location. I’m really optimistic about our technology and our ability to deploy and scale. I think that that approach specifically to deployment will also make us generally more successful because we can cultivate plans in parallel almost and continue to point at sites we’ve already set up for deployment. Hey, optimistic. One of our values is persistent optimism. I like to think that we’re all optimistic, that we can make this big difference on climate.
Dylan: Nice. Living the values. In that timeframe, 10, 13 years, what do you think, what do you hope Heirloom Carbon will look like as a company?
Noah: That’s a great question. I feel like there’s so many different facets to this. It’s really interesting to think about just based on how fast we’ve been growing. I really imagine from more of a technology perspective that we have deployed across the US. We have several sites, you can drive across the planes and you can see one of our outdoor facilities operating in this autonomous fashion, removing CO2 from the atmosphere without you knowing and coupled to these really impressive, renewable energy facilities, and truly beautiful to see, especially if you know what’s going on behind the curtain.
Then on the Heirloom side, we encounter with the number of tons of CO2 we’ve removed from the atmosphere, we’ve grown to be this a massively interdisciplinary and intercultural company that is deploying and has deployed tens of millions of tons of CO2 removal. We’re constructing plants around the US and around the world that will enable further deployments and we’re really working towards fulfilling those global climate goals. I think that when I think about the future, that’s what it looks like from a physical perspective. It really does inspire me because I think that the scale of the problem can be very daunting and thinking about what the solutions can look like is not something that everyone is doing. That visualization brings me joy. I hope it brings others joy.
Dylan: It does help. It’s a beautiful future. Is there a world where Heirloom would expand into other, I guess, other revenue streams or other– One option is to store the CO2 underground. It could be an input to other heavy industries, I imagine, potentially capturing other greenhouse gasses. Is there anything like that in Heirloom’s future? What do you think?
Noah: Yes, I think, for the time being, we are focused on geologic storage. It has the biggest net climate impact. When you take CO2 and you make products, a lot of times that CO2 is re-released into the atmosphere. The duration of keeping it away is very short. Our primary business model is geologic storage because we think it has the most positive climate impact. That said, we’ll be looking for ways to vertically integrate. We’ll be looking for other opportunities to apply the process and continue down that path. Right now, we’re really focused on removal.
Dylan: Few last questions. On a scale of, we totally got this as the sky is falling, what’s your perspective on the future of our planet?
Noah: Is a 1 we totally got this and a 10, the sky is falling.
Dylan: Yes, or the other.
Noah: Probably three. Like I mentioned, I’m realistically optimistic about the future of our planet. We need to both reduce our carbon emissions which I think are where we’re taking strides to do as well as remove CO2 from the atmosphere. It’s no easy feat to do so, but we’ve got incredibly talented, smart, and capable, and most importantly motivated individuals that are working on this. I’m really optimistic there. That said, I think we do need a little bit more from the global scale and how we would integrate a global economy to address the climate crisis that I think is lacking.
I have local state and federal governments across the globe, do more than thinking about how we actually implement this. I think that some are, and we need action too. I think that it’s a healthy balance of persistent optimism and realism. How about you? I want to flip that question. I’m super interested. How do you think about, on a scale of, we got this to the sky falling?
Dylan: Oh, great question. I love this. The more I do this podcast and the more people I talk to, the more I lean towards the, we got this. It’s more like you guys got this. I’m just doing a podcast here. I’m really impressed by the number of people entering this industry from all corners of the world and how passionate and motivated and smart you are and your peers are. It does give me some confidence-
Noah: That’s good to hear.
Dylan: -that we got this. That’s one of the reasons I asked to make sure my head’s in the right spot. Who is one other person or company doing something to address climate change that’s inspiring you right now?
Noah: Choosing just one is going to be really hard.
Dylan: Oh, as many as you’d like.
Noah: There’s a lot of people in this space that are doing great things. I think it’s probably a bit cheesy for me to say this, but perhaps Jennifer Wilcox. She’s my advisor, but she’s also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who’s on leave and has a very long title. President, deputy assistant, secretary of fossil energy and carbon management, quite a mouthful.
Dylan: What does that mean?
Noah: She oversees as she is currently the appointed assistant secretary of fossil energy and carbon management until someone is confirmed into the position of assistant secretary of fossil energy and carbon management. She’s overseeing that entire part of the DOE. She’s really someone who conveys and articulates really complex concepts in a way that’s totally digestible and understandable to a broad audience. I really respect that. She’s really motivated by creating the next generation of human capital to solve the climate crisis.
I think that type of motivation is crucial to what we need in order to get us to the next steps of technology development, of policy development of really combating climate change. In addition to all of that, she’s currently pushing the department of energy or fossil energy and carbon management to its limit. She worked to change the name from fossil energy to fossil energy and carbon management. I think that she’s just enacted such crucial change at the governmental level that it’s truly admirable.
If I can say more than once, I’m also inspired by a lot of the work of Carbon Direct. Carbon Direct actually was an investor in Heirloom, but they’ve worked with many of the big names in the voluntary carbon markets to set up the framework for what defines high-quality carbon removal which is an absolutely crucial aspect of developing these markets. I think they’ve just got such a support and talented team and just have provided so many resources to actually educate as well as influence how we think about carbon removal in these voluntary markets. I think the work that they’re doing is incredibly impactful as well.
Dylan: What’s their main business model?
Noah: It’s two different companies. Carbon Direct has a science advisory side where they actually advise clients on picking projects for, or setting up requests for proposals for carbon removal projects as well as sifting through those as to how you actually come up with high-quality carbon removal, as well as advising a little bit more broadly as to strategy and strategic decisions related to carbon removal. As well as they’ve got a capital management side that is separate and does investing in the space of carbon capture, carbon removal, and general carbon management. Pretty cool.
Dylan: One thing I’ve been realizing is not all carbon credits are created equal.
Noah: Not at all.
Dylan: How important it is that’s well understood by the demand side of all this.
Noah: That’s the really crucial part of what Carbon Direct is doing, is making sure that the demand side understands, is the project additional or is it taking CO2 that wouldn’t have otherwise been removed from the atmosphere and how long is it keeping that CO2 away from the atmosphere? What are the other externalities of that process that needs to be considered? There’s a long list of what constitutes high-quality carbon removal.
Dylan: I don’t want to slow you down, if there’s somebody else you want to call out?
Noah: Oh, I’ll stop there. You’re like, “Can call out more,” and may get in trouble.
Dylan: What advice do you have for someone that’s new to the industry, but wants to do something to help?
Noah: It’s also a really good question. I think there’s so much in this and there’s really a place for everyone in climate tech. There’s so many companies that just came out of the woodwork that have started development on climate technologies, be it direct air capture, be it other forms of carbon removal. I think that my advice for people getting started is to learn more about what’s out there. Find something in climate tech that really motivates you to get involved and then reflect on what you’re interested in. What facets of climate technology actually speak to you on a personal level and what would you be excited to get out of bed every day and work on? Then pursue that.
That’s where your interest lies, that’s what you’re passionate about. That’s what you can pursue. We’re really at the cusp of a burgeoning field. There’s really no shortage of opportunities. Maybe if you allow me one last shameless plug here is that if you’re interested in the technology that I’ve been talking about, Heirloom has several open positions. We’re building a team that cares deeply about the climate. I think that there’s so many opportunities for creativity and innovation in what we’re doing that we really want to bring on people who share that mission and share our values of radical honesty, persistent optimism, and really maximizing our ability to learn. I’ll shamelessly plug Heirloom there.
Dylan: Please do. I love it. That’s one of the goals of doing this show and we’ll put a link in the show notes so people have an easy way to get to your listings. Awesome. Well, Noah, that’s a great call to action to end on and inspiring. I really appreciate your time today and everything you’re doing to address climate change. Thanks a lot.
Noah: Thanks for having me.
Dylan: Hardware to Save a Planet is brought to you by Synapse. To find out more about us and how we develop hardware solutions for the world’s most ambitious companies, head to synapse.com. Then make sure to search for Hardware To Save A Planet in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts, or anywhere you like to listen. Make sure to click subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. On behalf of the team here at Synapse, thanks for listening.