Direct Air Carbon Capture is Crazy, Noya to the Rescue

Fifty Years partners with Noya to turn common cooling towers into direct air carbon capture plants

In the history of humanity, there has rarely been such a comically terrible idea as direct air carbon capture (DAC). You know all those people complaining about how bitcoin is a massively useless waste of energy with no real purpose? DAC is like that except with 200x the energy usage by 2050 and all that energy is going to be spent burying the end product in such a way that we can literally get no use out of it!1 That’s preposterous, you might say! Well, the fact that we need to scale up DAC is even crazier.

Why do we need to use DAC, rather than something like biology, to capture CO2? We need everything! But bio-based carbon capture is uncertain -- biology can quickly switch from being a net negative source to a net positive source (trees stop growing and start dying, soil emissions are increasing, plants rot and emit more methane). Land-based biological carbon stocks can also burn -- the California forest fires in 2020 alone emitted an estimated 90 million metric tons of CO2. Biological capture approaches also often use land and water that we’d prefer to use to grow food. There’s no doubt that we will and should throw everything and the kitchen sink at fixing the climate. No matter how you slice it, though, we need solutions that guarantee negative emissions with permanent sequestration. 

By 2100 we may be spending a quarter of all the energy humanity produces to capture and bury carbons! That's energy we could be using to power lifesaving hospitals, grow food, or advance scientific research. We’re forced to spend so much energy on DAC because we didn’t capture CO2 when it was 10-200x more concentrated in a tailpipe or smokestack, but rather waited until after the CO2 had a chance to evenly mix with the entire world’s supply of air 🤦.2 That leaves it in such low concentration (4 molecules out of every 10,000 molecules of air) that we have to move 1,600 tons of air to capture one ton of CO2.3 On top of that, CO2 molecules are so unreactive and stable in the atmosphere that their lifetime in the air is measured in hundreds of years. Because we have to capture so much CO2, we’re forced to use dirt-cheap bases like amines or hydroxides that react strongly with CO2 molecules and that are either stuck onto solid supports or mixed into water. 

The kinetics of CO2 capture are dominated by the overall reactivity of the base sorbent and the CO2’s mass transfer rate into the sorbent. That generally requires massive, industrial sized fans moving air through either meso- or microporous channels for solid sorbents, or flowing past liquid sorbent (usually water) that is trickling down structured media. These setups are designed to maximize air/sorbent contact time to react with CO2 while minimizing pressure loss. Solid sorbents need to have massive surface area -- one gram of solid sorbents needs almost as much surface area as a football field. Once the sorbents have reacted with CO2, the reaction needs to be reversed with thermal energy (350-450 kJ per mole of CO2 at temperatures sometimes as high as 900C for calcium carbonate). The CO2 molecule is then released into a separate (and ideally) pure stream of CO2 and the regenerated capture material is returned back to the fans. The fans and liquid pumps (for liquid sorbents) generally take up 20% of the energy through electricity usage, and the thermal regeneration takes 80% of the energy through thermal energy. That’s a ton of energy required.

DAC is also a terribly wasteful engineering and economic idea. The best, and most thorough engineering paper on the topic (by Carbon Engineering, great paper by the way!), estimates that to capture CO2 on the scale of  ~10 gigatons per year (the rate we need to capture per year by 2050), we’ll need to invest $8-$10T to build out 10,000 new industrial sites for just the DAC plants themselves.4 Carbon Engineering estimated a levelized cost of capture of between $90-230 per ton of CO2. Previously, the American Physical Society’s estimate for levelized cost was $550 per ton CO2 captured in the ‘realistic’ scenario.5 

Those are the costs. To get paid, you can get a federal 45Q tax credit at $50 per ton of CO2 that is permanently sequestered. In California, there’s also a program called the Low Carbon Fuel Standard which trades carbon credits at $200 per ton CO2. If you can stitch these two credits together and achieve the low end of Carbon Engineering’s Nth plant levelized cost, you can make money -- assuming the cost to permanently sequester carbon isn’t so high that it ruins your business. Consumers of CO2 (merchant market) will pay about $200 per ton, but then you have to cover the additional transportation cost to get it to the final customer. Part of this market is enhanced oil recovery where CO2 is injected into an oil well to get more oil! About 80% of CO2 in this market is actually just sourced straight from the ground -- literally moving from one underground hole to another. The implied price is low and dependent on the price of oil (estimated at $15 per ton CO2). These economics are teetering on being close to profitable, which is why there isn’t a massive rush to invest in new DAC plants until there’s a significant regulatory incentive to do so.

This whole mess is also a comically terrible problem because if we had just acted in 1979 (!) when 50 nations got together at the first World Climate Conference in Geneva and said “urgent action is needed!,” or even a decade later in 1989 when scientific consensus agreed that, yes, rising CO2 levels are a Big Fucking Deal™ and we should all sign a binding treaty to reduce CO2 emissions then we wouldn’t have to do DAC today. But we didn’t, so now we need to enact this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad plan of massively scaling DAC with or without government incentives. If only humanity hadn’t squandered the past forty years and had been secretly building out carbon capture plants and stealthily disguising them as something else! 🤔💡

Enter Noya, whose bold solution for climate change is realizing that we already built the first (and massive) fleet of carbon capture plants -- we just call them cooling towers! Noya wants to take the two million already-built cooling towers -- industrial infrastructure specifically designed to optimize air/water contact -- in the United States (and then globally) and unleash them to capture CO2. Why cooling towers? They are ubiquitous. It’s a basic unit process you learn about in any plant design textbook -- if you need to cool something, and you’ve got power and water, you can use a cooling tower. They’re found all over the place -- in power plants, chemical factories, oil refineries, food processing plants, semiconductor fabs, and the list goes on. The white ‘smoke’ wafting slowly from a tower at an industrial site is probably a cooling tower (the ‘smoke’ is actually condensed water).

Noya’s technology is massively viral. They allow a cooling tower operator to turn a cost center into a profit center with an additional source of revenue. For plant operators, the question becomes: “Do I want to make more money from something I already built and currently have to pay to operate and turn it into planet-saving infrastructure?” In repurposing already-built and operating infrastructure, Noya completely upends the traditional economics of having to site, build, and operate the air contactor which generally takes 20-30% of the capex and 20-30% of the opex of a typical DAC plant. They can get started today, on already-built and globally ubiquitous cooling towers. Saving the planet never made so much economic sense! 

Such an ingenious idea doesn’t come from just anyone -- the Noya founders are exactly the type of people to build this business into a billion dollar behemoth. Co-founder & CEO Josh Santos is an MIT-trained chemical engineer with sales, project, and program management experience from launching products at Tesla, Harley-Davidson, and Labdoor. Daniel Cavero, co-founder & CTO, is a mechanical engineer with an AI & Robotics background from Nod Labs. They’re joined by Founding Chemist Laurene Petitjean, who got her PhD in Green Chemistry from Yale University and Alexandra Welch, a PhD candidate at Caltech studying CO2 reduction at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis. Together they’re an indomitable team that couldn’t even be stopped by multiple visits from the San Francisco bomb squad! We believe that Noya and its unique approach to transforming existing infrastructure into DAC plants will create a gold rush of industrial cooling tower operators to save the planet.

At Fifty Years, our sweet spot is supporting founders at the earliest stages building deep tech companies that can generate huge financial outcomes and create massive positive impact.

  1. Deep tech: Josh and Daniel are creating the foundational technology to transform already-built and operating cooling towers into DAC plants with a proprietary CO2 capture mixture that is drop-in for cooling tower operators.

  2. $1B yearly revenue potential: There are over 2 million cooling towers across the United States alone, and Noya is unlocking them to directly capture carbon from the air and make a profit! They estimate over 7 gigatons of CO2 can be captured annually with cooling towers in the U.S. Noya can capture CO2 cheaper than any other DAC competitor. The lowest cost of CO2 production in market will allow them to capture the initial merchant market of CO2 in the short term and then be a dominant player when the regulated carbon capture market dwarfs the merchant market (🤞) over the long term.

  3. Massive positive societal impact: This has the potential to scale DAC plants faster than anyone thinks possible through a viral, revenue-share business model.

Inspired by their vision of transforming already-built industrial infrastructure into profitable DAC plants, Fifty Years is excited to partner with Noya. We led their pre-seed round and were joined by our friends at Lowercarbon and Y Combinator. At Fifty Years, helping great scientists and engineers become great entrepreneurs is our jam, and we’re looking forward to helping Josh, Daniel, and team capture many, many gigatons of CO2 to help unf**k the planet (h/t Lowercabon on that turn of phrase).

1

It‘s estimated that the world needs to capture 10 gigatons (10e9 tons) of CO2 per annum by 2050. Carbon Engineering’s estimate is that each ton of captured CO2 requires about 8 GJ of energy. Total annual energy usage to capture 10 gigatons is approximately 80e9 GJ, or ~2e5 TWh. The annual estimate for electricity usage is ~100 TWh of usage.

2

Factoid of the day: it’s actually tough to mix air between the hemispheres due to the lack of thermal forcing across the equator. The timescale for interhemispheric transport is about 1 year. This is compared to about 1-2 weeks for air mixing longitudinally, and 1-2 months mixing latitudinally within a hemisphere. For further fun facts about your atmosphere, check out this classic textbook.

3

CO2 concentration is approximately 400ppm, so there’s about 2,500 molecules of air per one molecule of CO2. The molar mass of air is about 29g, and the molar mass of CO2 is about 44g, so there’s about 1,600 tons of air for every 1 ton of CO2. To actually capture 1 ton of CO2 from 1,600 tons of air assumes capturing every single molecule of CO2 in a one pass. DAC systems won't target this high of a capture rate. The goal is the cheapest capture cost, and so the target capture rate is set by the capture rate at which the marginal cost to move another molecule of CO2 is approximately equal to the marginal capture cost of the next CO2 molecule in the air stream.

4

The approximate capex investment for a 1 megaton CO2 per annum plant was estimated to be $1.1B for early plants and $780M for Nth plants. To scale to 10 gigatons (1e4 megatons) CO2 capture per annum would require 10,000 (1e4) plants, or about $8T-$10T. For a deeper dive, this paper is great.

5

If you're interested in reading more about the concept of "levelized" costs, you can read the "Calculating Key Cost Metrics" section on page 15 of this report.