Capturing carbon emissions from the atmosphere is helping the world eliminate the historic greenhouse gases – an important step in tackling emissions that are still accumulating today despite common efforts. Avnos is an LA-based direct air capture technology startup developing a revolutionary approach to capturing emissions.
The company was part of the first carbon removal startup cohort of Third Derivative in 2022 and is developing a hybrid direct air capture technology that not only sucks CO2 from ambient air but also produces water. Moreover, the company is ahead of the market in terms of cost of removal per ton of CO2, likely to near the $100 benchmark in the early 2030s.
We had a chat with Will Kain, CEO of Avnos, who has over 17 years of experience in the climate tech scene. He shared with us some of the secrets behind the company’s technology, the future growth pathways and opportunities lying ahead for Avnos.
What is Avnos’ technology and how does it work?
We are commercializing what we call hybrid direct air capture or HDAC. The hybrid is intended to reflect the fact that we capture both water and CO2 from the same air stream in the same system. So you can think of HDAC as two subsystems that make up a unified HDAC unit.
The first subsystem is a patent-protected atmospheric water extraction unit. The atmospheric water extraction is a unique approach and we have the intellectual property that comes out of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. It is a highly energy-efficient water extraction or dehumidification subsystem.
We take the relative humidity in the air stream down to a target level which means we are dehumidifying the air to a certain level. The dry air coming out of the dehumidification unit – drier than ambient, then goes to our CO2 capture subsystem.
Our CO2 capture subsystem uses a unique class of material to perform what we call moisture swing adsorption. Instead of using heat, as the input to liberate the CO2 that we capture, we use moisture. We are generating that moisture in the first step.
You can start to see some of the elegance of the integration of the two systems. In drying out the air, we’re able to use the moisture swing adsorption materials. That allows us to be more efficient and more effective on the CO2 uptake mechanism.
After we have adsorbed the CO2 on to the moisture swing material, the way that we release it is via using moisture. We “desorb” the water vapor first out of the atmospheric water extraction unit. That water vapor travels through the CO2 unit and that’s how we strip the CO2 out, we do not add heat. We are both producing water and eliminating external heat input which differentiates us from some of the more traditional operating paradigms in space.
Additionally, to go into more detail about the technology, each of the subsystems have two beds. Picture two trains effectively, that run in parallel to one another. The first train is adsorption – the air enters the adsorb train, it travels in a linear fashion through the water bed, and then into the CO2 bed. At the same time, there’s a parallel train operating simultaneously in desorb.
The two trains are parallel to one another but at the same time they are operating in an opposite state. So while that adsorbed train is adsorbing, train 2 is desorbing – unloading the water vapor in the CO2. Once train 1 is full and train 2 is empty, then the trains switch their operating state – train 1 goes into desorb and train 2 goes into adsorb.
The trains go on switching back and forth throughout the useful lifetime. That is another unique aspect of the system from a configuration and mechanical point of view – we are both adsorbing and desorbing at all times.
Do you develop the moisture swing materials in-house?
The moisture swing approach is novel. The moisture material is the material that captures the CO2. We use a water desiccant on the water side of the equation and our moisture swing material. The precursors – the components of the material are all commercially available.
We have a unique approach to synthesizing a group of pretty widely available precursor materials that we synthesize into a unique material that is a moisture-responsive CO2 absorb and desorb material. We have some intellectual property that’s in process around those materials. They are new and novel.
I’m aware of one other group, the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, led by Klaus Lackner at ASU, engaged in a moisture swing approach to DAC but we are the only other ones who produce water in the system.
The material that we are commercializing gives us a great deal of additional flexibility as to where we can site the units, it also eliminates the thermal input to the system, reducing the energy consumption, as well as the cost.
How did your journey with Avnos begin? Why did you decide to start the company?
So I’ve been in early-stage climate tech companies for 17 years for the vast majority of my career. That included five-plus years at a water desalination technology company, where I became acutely aware of water scarcity issues and how they play into the long-term battle against climate change.
Around the time of the original Paris Agreement meeting, it became quite clear to me that the next frontier in decarbonization and fighting climate change was going to be negative emissions technologies. We’re going to have to figure out a way to remove legacy CO2 from the atmosphere.
I remember very clearly reading something that said if we go to the zero marginal emission society tomorrow, we’re still in trouble because of the CO2 content in the air. Clearly, we’re not going to a zero marginal emission society tomorrow or in a year or in a decade so I think that further underscores the importance of CO2 removal.
At that time, I started looking around at the CO2 removal space and what opportunities there were to dive in. I’ve been fortunate to have had a long-standing relationship with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The folks at PNNL were looking at HDAC – the combination of water extraction and moisture swing CO2 capture.
Early 2020, I decided to license the technology from PNNL and make a run at starting a direct air capture company. The first thing we did was to apply for and win a $3.2 million award – sponsorship from the Department of Energy to build a pilot system. Now, we’re in the last phase of that pilot system’s construction and commissioning.
During designing and working to build partnerships to bring this pilot system to life, it became very clear that this technology really had legs. It became something that was important for me to invest my time and energy in. I started on this effort three and a half years ago and we now have 12 people, building pilot systems and heading in a positive, fun and exciting direction.
How is Avnos’ technology different compared to current approaches?
We are fully electrified, fully non thermal and water positive. Those characteristics are significant advances in the technology. It’s also modular – if you want 10 times that capacity, then it’s 10 modules. We believe that allows us to scale quite quickly and bring costs down as we go to a manufacturing approach rather than making a custom system for every geography.
That has both speed-to-market implications and cost implications. Another thing I would highlight is that we have resource efficiency or a broader license to operate than some others in the space.
If you are in a jurisdiction like California, it’s gonna be really hard to build industrial systems that take significant amounts of water. In producing water, we open up a broader geographic operating envelope.
The other side of the coin, when we talk about license to operate, is cost. We turn water from a cost line item to a revenue line item. As we don’t use thermal energy, we have CAPEX savings. We can use lower cost non metallic materials, for example, in some parts of the system. Also, in eliminating thermal we eliminate any potential greenhouse gas emissions associated with generating that heat.
Our friends in the space who require thermal input may not be able to use the lower cost materials that we leverage. We’ve got a really good chance to be the lowest cost, widest operating envelope technology in the space.
What is your business model?
The primary focus at the moment is to spend as much of our energy as we can on creating the best technology solution. Then we will be partnering with others in the space who are world-class at building assets or equipment of this nature.
We know enough to know that we can’t do all of this on our own. We are quite proud of the partner ecosystem we have. Most of the names are currently confidential but we will share them at a later date. We don’t see ourselves as subsurface sequestration experts so we prefer to have sequestration partners.
What are you planning to do with the CO2 that you remove and the water that you produce? What kind of revenue streams are you planning to tap into?
The clear pathway is sequestration in geologic formations. It is certainly a critical part of our business plan and obviously a critical part of the negative emissions technologies. We’re building out a network of partners with whom we can work to sequester the CO2.
When we think about utilization, we actually become really compelling front end for a lot of utilization strategies. The water we produce is of distilled quality. When you think about E fuels or sustainable chemicals, a lot of the inputs there are both water and CO2. In some cases like fuels, water goes in an electrolyzer to generate hydrogen.
We can provide sufficient water as well as CO2 to get the ratio right to be a feedstock engine for things like E fuels and sustainable chemicals. That’s something that we are actively working on. We are exploring the fuel space to look at using HDAC as a front end for sustainable fuels, for example.
There are a number of other utilization cases like distributed CO2 for beverages. That’s all possible for us and we’re pursuing all of those. We’re working actively as we speak on the right opportunities to plug in with partners who have expertise in markets beyond our obvious applications. There are many opportunities and that’s the exciting part, right?
Yes, apart from solving that problem of climate change, there are also many exciting business opportunities for carbon removal technologies. You mentioned you have a pilot project, would you please tell us more about that? Also, what is your planned project pipeline?
I will reference the Department of Energy award that we won in late 2020, early 2021 which was given to build a 33 tons per year HDAC system that will be located in Bakersfield. It will produce approximately 300 tons of water per year so about 1 to 10 CO2 – water productivity ratio.
We have been through the design phase, the construction phase, and we are now into the commissioning phase. When it’s up and running, that project will be the first water and CO2 capture device deployed in the world. That’s obviously quite exciting for us.
We have additional projects that we’re working on, each of which will be larger than the previous one. We are actively building out the capacity and the maturity level of the technology with some extremely well-positioned partners. You can expect more information about these projects in the coming months.
Can you reveal the current cost of CO2 removed and your long-term price goal?
As we get to a scale of hundreds of thousands of tonnes per year, which is where we’re headed, we see a cost of less than $250 per tonne of CO2 towards the end of the decade.
Early next decade, when there are regular and steady supply chain operations, churning out hundreds of thousands of tonnes per year of production capacity, we see a viable pathway to below $100 per ton. That is on an unsubsidized basis before collecting any 45Q subsidies or anything of that sort.
That is really revolutionary, isn’t it? It’es a big competitive advantage to be able to drop the cost so much around 2030.
It all goes back to water positivity and eliminating the thermal input which have both operating expense implications and capital expenditure implications.
These are supported by deploying, derisking and maturing the technology, both from a performance perspective and from a supply chain point of view. When someone ramps up the volume, he/she starts getting that purchasing power and reduction for cost of some of the key components.
When could we expect the plant you mentioned to come online and reach its full capacity of removing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of CO2 annually?
I would say before the end of this decade. 2027 to 2030 is what we have targeted as the window during which we will be growing into the hundreds of thousands of tons per year.
Could you please elaborate more on your partnership with the Department of Energy and Southern California Gas Company?
Yeah, absolutely. The DOE has been crucial in supporting the Bakersfield unit. As I mentioned, one of the very first things that I did when starting the company was to apply for a DOE award which happened in early 2020. We won the award in late 2020 so we’ve been in partnership with the Department of Energy since then.
They have been incredibly supportive in helping us place that 30-ton-per-year unit into the field. It’s been a great program to be a part of. There is a great deal of energy coming from the federal government and from the Department of Energy to advance direct air capture technology.
Having been in Southern California, I have been fortunate to have a longstanding high-quality, relationship with Southern California Gas. They deployed some funds in support of the pilot unit and we came up with a bit of cost share in Austin. They also helped us find the site in Bakersfield. DOE and SoCal Gas are working to advance HDAC but also direct air capture more broadly.
Do you have a carbon removal target? What scale of deployment do you envision?
Our ambition is non-trivial, we want to be at a gigaton scale by 2035. I think that is probably something that others in the space are thinking about as well. We certainly want to be out in the world, contributing as much as we can to negative emissions technologies so we are running fast and working hard to get to a gigaton of removal.
Over the rest of this year, Avnos will have some additional partnership announcements that will be quite useful in supporting that ambition.
What is the unique value proposition that Avnos brings to the direct air capture space?
We are super excited to be the only water-positive DAC solution on the market, and also being more energy and resource efficient than everybody else in the space. The latest estimates show that 50% of the global population is going to live in a water-stressed existence by 2025. When I started in the water space in 2009, that date was more like 2035/ 2040.
We are headed for a significant proportion of the population living in water stress or water scarce areas. Being able to contribute to that problem in addition to decarbonization, is something that we are obviously quite excited about.