Every successful technology that captures CO2 emissions already in the atmosphere is needed to scale rapidly in order for the world to significantly limit the consequences related to climate change. 8 Rivers Capital – the venture capital firm leading the innovations in the global energy transition is developing a direct air capture (DAC) approach that enables a rapid uptake of the process of removing CO2 from air. Its DAC technology is called Calcite and was launched back in 2019.
We interviewed Mario Guagnelli, VP Product Development at Calcite that gave us valuable insights on the company’s DAC approach and its ongoing journey towards scaling it efficiently. Jennifer Diggins, VP Public Affairs at 8Rivers also joined the conversation, explaining the effects of a recent policy endorsement from the Biden administration on the direct air capture industry.
My first question Mr. Guagnelli is what is Calcite and what is its technology?
8 Rivers was founded in 2008. We are a climate tech company, focusing mainly on clean energy, and the energy transition. Lately, we’ve been more involved in carbon management or carbon capture and carbon removal. Calcite was invented in 2019 which is our direct air capture technology.
Since 2019, Calcite, our Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology has been under development internally, with the support of multiple organizations like Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and MIT since 2020.
We won the Xprize Award for direct air capture in April 2022 and in June we had an offtake purchase from Frontier which was a good endorsement. Towards the end of last year we went from internal development, validating our technology, to focusing on scaling it up.
That’s where I also come in, as I joined in October. As the VP of Product Development for Calcite, my goal is to take Calcite from the development stage into a full-scale deployment. We have also been working very closely with national labs to validate the approach that we’ve developed in our own lab.
Regarding our technology, Calcite is a Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology that leverages the simplicity of the natural calcium cycle. An oxy-fired kiln combusts natural gas and concentrated oxygen to calcine fresh and regenerated calcium carbonate (CaCO3) to form calcium oxide (CaO) – also known as quicklime.
The effluent CO2 is captured for sequestration and calcium oxide is then hydrated, which in turn carbonates with ambient air through air contactor modules. The newly formed calcium carbonate is looped back to the kiln to begin a new carbonation cycle.
Would you please share more about your background and why did you decide to join the company?
I’m a Chartered Engineer, born and raised in Mexico City and I have an MBA from Kellogg at Northwestern University. My experience has been in software technology and in large industrial operations, mainly minerals related – gypsum, cement, calcium carbonate.
Working in the industry, I always had ideas of working with a big cement company, and then do internal projects. But when you’re not a technology company, it’s hard to advance those projects born from new ideas. When I saw the opportunity at Calcite, I thought it’s a great fit for me as a have a lot of experience in infrastructure science projects.
I can also work towards my mission, which is to help reduce greenhouse gases. Working with a company that has the finances and the background I needed to build these projects is very attractive.
At what stage is the company at the moment?
Mario Guagnelli: We have done mostly research and development so far and we are at a stage where we are building our first pilot plant. The next steps are finishing the design and construction of our first pilot plan. Then, the next step is building our first-of-a-kind industrial-size plant, which hopefully will be part of one of the direct air capture hubs in the US. We are waiting for the Department of Energy to make its final selection on which regional direct air capture hubs it will facilitate.
Jennifer Diggins: Mario hit on a really important point, which is the amount of money that the Biden administration has set aside for DAC hubs – $3.5 billion. That amount is really going to put this technology on steroids. The goal is to identify four successful hubs across the country and that really will enable companies like Calcite to scale up very quickly.
It’s almost like a shot in the arm. The expectation is that we’ll hear from the Department of Energy probably in the next four to six weeks, at which point we’ll know if we are successful in our application.
It’s really a very exciting time as the light of the Biden administration is shining on this industry which gives us a great opportunity to talk about this technology. So many times it’s confused or conflated – carbon removal, carbon capture, carbon storage, etc. But what this can do for already emitted CO2 is really an incredible story.
Do you offer direct air capture credits to the market right now?
We have done a small carbon credits purchase with Frontier which was based on our pilot plant. We’re waiting on the development of our first-of-a-kind plant. The engineering of the facility will happen in the next year, and then the construction – the following year.
Just like almost every direct air capture company, we are taking orders for capacity that will be online in a couple of years. Once we have a better idea on the timing of that first plant, we would look at financing options and at least part of that financing will be via credits.
After our pilot, we will be working on a 50,000-ton-per-year plant which is what I call our first industrial-size plant. For us to be scalable, we want to build 500,000 to 1 million tons of carbon removal per year plants.
The 50k facility is more of a demo and based on the information we’re getting from that plant, we’re going to start developing the engineering of the large industrial facility. The timeline we envision for the 1 million plant large-scale facility is about four to five years.
You are also saying that your technology is driving the price of capture and removal per ton of CO2 to around $100. How would you manage to achieve that?
Obviously, everybody who’s trying to develop critical pathways for this technology is looking at $100 plus dollars per tonne of CO2 removal. This is the price threshold at which the technology becomes more economically feasible and deployable.
Calcite has enormous potential to be deployed successfully at scale, given its low technology risk, utilization of existing supply chains, and reliance on abundant limestone feedstock. The process and majority of the equipment already exist, with de-risking of the newer equipment (kiln and contactor) to be completed in the pilot testing in 2024.
The way I like to see it is we’re kind of building cement plants in reverse. So rather than making cement and producing co2, we’re doing exactly the opposite with similar technology.
Our sorbent is very similar to cement which you can buy in the US for just about 100 USD/ton – so we can assume the cost of production is somewhere in the $50 / ton range. If one ton of cement (calcium oxide in our case) can absorb about 0.5 to .8 tons of CO2, you can see the path for our technology to reach <$100 USD/ton of CO2 given the low cost of the sorbent.
There is room for everyone’s technologies in this space, given the size of the problem. I hope we are all successful. I think that in 20 or 30 years, we’re going to be looking at a third or fourth generation of the technologies being developed today, which will undoubtedly be more efficient, affordable and scalable.
The next 10 years are critical to scaling up CDR solutions which rely mainly on technology readiness and well-developed supply chains. That’s really where I see our technology helping get CDR to scale up faster, as other technologies developed in parallel, that, again, maybe more efficient in the long run, but they’re going to take a lot longer to really become highly scalable.
How do you think the direct air capture industry will change in the next couple of years? How far do you think the market could grow and how fast?
The US Government has made the landscape very attractive. Looking out to the future, no company is going to invest in a 30-year plan, if you don’t have certainty of tax credits or some kind of incentive that is going to make your investment profitable. So with the signals that we have, this is going to accelerate the markets. And again, one thing the US government is really helping with is DAC hubs.
The US Government is not saying Calcite is going to win, or XYZ is going to win. They’re saying; let’s support all the credible companies that can make this happen. And of course, there are going to be winners and losers, we would hope everybody was a winner, because we need all of them and by the way, there are going to be some synergies across multiple technologies.
Besides government support and incentives, there are leading companies that are really supporting CDR efforts, especially direct air capture. So really, the bottleneck right now is capacity in the next few years. To build a plan to deliver carbon removals. But for the time being, if we could build our 1 million ton plant tomorrow, I don’t think we’ll have a problem with building it in a profitable way.
So that’s one of the keys. Yes, I think it’s speed, and credibility, but not only from a technology perspective, we need to really engage with stakeholders, you know, in the communities that we’re going to build those plants.
If we build a 1 million ton plant or a 100k plant per year, and we mess it up, it’s going to be really bad for the industry and for the world. We really have one chance at doing this correctly.
As a company, we believe in and support the Biden Administration’s focus on community participation in the siting and selecting process for these types of projects. We want to build where the community wants us and understands the value they will receive from hosting our technology and the benefits that come from climate technology projects.
How does Calcite overcome the issue of high energy requirements of running a DAC facility?
Every single technology, depending on how it works is going to need energy to move the air and for regenerating its solvents. For now, I think the world needs to come to an agreement that we will need to spend energy. As the technologies become more efficient, it is going to be less and less and I can’t wait to see some of the innovations that are going to keep happening including with Calcite.
In the beginning, there’s no other way around it. We need to move 1 million molecules of air to capture 400 molecules of CO2 and every system has to do that using energy, except if you have a passive system, which can take 100 times longer to get over CO2. We just have to be smart about it – we need to use clean energy and it has to be net positive for the environment.
At this point, we have to agree that even the most efficient system is going to require energy and we need to make sure we always use clean energy in any case.
Some analyses say that capturing CO2 from the air through DAC technology might be an exercise in futility in the sense that renewable energy requirements from DAC will divert clean energy use from households that will have to be replaced by fossil fuel energy. What are your thoughts on that?
One point from the IPCC report is how cheap clean energy is becoming. I’m hoping that the availability of clean energy is going to keep increasing as far as the needs of both population and the industry. It’s not only DAC that requires energy, many different industries and companies that have net zero targets are going into clean energy. There will be some competition but that is required by the clean energy transition and for achieving our net zero goals.
Why do you think so many companies prefer DAC credits over other available CDR methods?
There are two things. One is duration – if you’re buying CO2 removal you really don’t want to deal with a scenario where it may not be there in 10 or 50 years. The second thing – using DAC technology makes it much easier to account for how much we capture compared to a forest or enhanced weathering. It’s easier to validate what we are capturing and it has higher durability.
How important do you think are direct air capture or energy hubs for the deployment of DAC?
We urgently need the reduction and removal of emissions to achieve net zero according to the latest IPCC and State of Carbon Dioxide Removal reports. Both solutions require heavy investments and risk-taking to support the development of novel technologies and the construction of first-of-a-kind plants.
The US government and the Biden administration are leading these efforts by providing funding and incentives for both DAC and energy hubs that will provide solutions for reduction and removal concurrently. As mentioned before, DAC requires clean energy to be efficient and the development of clean energy hubs can only help in this regard.
Do you store the CO2 in the form of gas or in a solid form?
We’re going to be sequestering the CO2 emissions as a gas in Class VI wells in the US which is the highest level of validation by the EPA for a well. We will move the carbon dioxide via pipeline and we’re going to work with a company to inject it in a fully permitted and monitored well.
What is next for Calcite? What is the next development we could be expecting?
We have made huge progress with the efficiency of our technology in the lab so the next big thing is to demonstrate that in a pilot, which is already under development. The big news will probably be finishing the construction of that pilot.