“Our Technology Uses 50% Less Energy To Capture And Separate CO2 From Direct Air Or Flue Gas,” Samer Taha CEO Atoco

"Our Technology Achieves More Than 50% Reduction In The Energy To Capture And Separate CO2 Out Of Direct Air Or Flue Gas," Samer Taha CEO Atoco - Carbon Herald
Samer Taha, CEO of Atoco. Credit: Don Feria for Atoco

Changing the underlying economics and efficiency of carbon capture technology is an area of focus for companies trying to decarbonize the hard-to-abate economic sectors. Atoco, a company developing novel molecular engineering technologies, has achieved groundbreaking innovations in carbon capture applications, engineering materials with high capture efficiency that dramatically reduce energy requirements and costs.

The company was founded in 2020 by Professor Omar Yaghi – a renowned chemists, known for his invention of Metal Organic Frameworks (MOF) and Covalent Organic Frameworks (COF) as well as molecular weaving technologies. He is a founder of the field of reticular chemistry, enabling the creation of novel materials with specific structures and properties designed with atomic-level precision.

We interviewed Samer Taha, CEO of Atoco, who explained the advances of Atoco in the world of chemistry, what the company’s scientific breakthroughs mean for the carbon capture industry, and how it is aiming to commercialize those innovations.

Mr Taha, what is Atoco and what are you trying to achieve long-term with the company? 

Atoco is a deep tech company that was founded by Professor Yaghi, the founder of reticular chemistry to tackle the cause of global warming – CO2 emissions – and one of its major symptoms, global water scarcity. Long-term, Atoco plans to be the leading technology supplier of efficient and scalable carbon capture solutions and atmospheric water harvesting solutions. 

    On carbon capture, we recognize that current projects are far away from delivering the results that the world needs, even in the most optimistic scenarios for renewable energy rollout. Incumbent technologies are still inefficient, and some projects are only functioning as pilots or demonstrations. Incumbent and current mainstream technologies are still making small incremental improvements on technologies that have been around for decades, while what we should be focusing on is a transformational shift in technology.

    Relevant: New Report Shows Global Surge In Carbon Capture Technology Innovation

    This is what Atoco aims to achieve. Working at the molecular and atomic level, Atoco is developing a transformational technology that can introduce a fundamental enhancement to the energy efficiency of carbon capture solutions. 

    Could you please explain what reticular chemistry is? How does it apply to carbon capture in the DAC and point-source capture sectors?  What are COFs?

      Reticular chemistry refers to a rapidly growing field of research in material science and chemistry, which focuses on the design, synthesis, and characterization of crystalline porous materials. These materials are, among others, known as COFs (covalent organic frameworks) and MOFs (metal-organic frameworks).

      The founder of Atoco, Prof. Omar Yaghi established the discipline in the 1990s, and today, more than a hundred research laboratories around the world are dedicated to reticular chemistry. MOFs and COFs have attracted significant attention in recent years due to their potential applications in a range of fields including gas and energy storage, catalysis, sensing, electronics, and drug delivery. 

      What makes reticular materials such as MOFs and COFs so interesting is the significant surface area associated with these materials. Some reticular materials, for instance, feature a surface area of more than 7,800 square meters per gram, meaning roughly the size of a soccer field, allowing for the capture of a significant amount of CO2 molecules. 

      Credit: Atoco

      Reticular materials such as MOFs or COFs need to be nano-engineered with very specific use cases in mind. Regarding carbon capture, for instance, we need to find the right balance between the CO2 selectivity of the material and the strength of bonding between CO2 molecules and the adsorbent material. Achieving the right balance is a delicate undertaking.

      On one hand, the strength of bonding between CO2 molecules and the adsorbent material needs to be just strong enough to maintain the CO2 molecules inside the adsorbent material; on the other hand, it can’t be so strong that it requires a lot of energy to release the CO2 molecules out of the adsorbent material.

      How is Atoco utilizing advances in chemistry to take carbon capture to the next level and unlock new possibilities for the industry? 

      One of the most significant factors holding back CCUS is the high cost of the initial, carbon-capture phase in the CCUS value chain. Estimates show the carbon capture phase constitutes 45-65% of the total levelized cost of CCUS. In DAC applications characterized by extremely low CO2 concentrations, the capture phase represents an even more substantial 80-90% of the total cost of CCUS, if not higher. 

        Technical solutions that can lower costs at the capture stage alone are therefore critical in lowering costs across the CCUS value chain at large – for both PCC and DAC. Naturally, therefore, Atoco focuses entirely on solving the capture stage of the CCUS value chain.

        One of the key drivers of high costs in the capture stage of the CCUS value chain is linked to the relatively low concentrations of CO2 in certain post-combustion flue streams and especially when capturing carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. Existing technologies require significant amounts of costly energy to work efficiently. 

        Relevant: Cambridge Scientists Develop Energy-Efficient Method To Capture CO2 Using Activated Charcoal

        One of the most distinctive aspects of our technology is its ability to efficiently capture CO2 even at low concentrations, such as those found in industries like NGCC (natural gas with carbon capture) power generation, aluminum production, or DAC where CO2 levels are around 0.04%. By effectively capturing CO2 in such low-concentrated feed streams, we not only help clients meet emission reduction targets but also ensure significant energy savings compared to existing technologies. We achieve this through our novel reticular materials that are designed with atomic precision to exhibit new properties, unseen before, in the form of energy-efficient capture and separation of CO2 molecules.

        Credit: Atoco

        Now, a carbon capture solution will always require some energy to operate. That energy consumption challenges the business case (and potentially the carbon footprint) of the system. The negative impact, however, can be minimized, if the system utilizes energy in the form of heat that is available yet under-utilized – like low-grade waste heat, meaning heat of such a low temperature that it typically cannot be easily taken advantage of. 

        Here, our technology, too, has an advantage that can help drive down the cost of CCUS. Our technology operates regeneration at significantly lower temperatures compared to existing technologies, ranging between 40°C and 60°C. This feature allows us to integrate the low-temperature industrial waste heat for the desorption and separation of the captured CO2 gas out of our novel reticular materials, further reducing energy costs and promoting sustainability by utilizing otherwise wasted resources. 

        Finally, certain conventional solid-state sorbents such as zeolite often also face costs associated with managing humidity levels of a fluor stream. Often, as humidity levels go up, efficiency levels drop, and sorbent materials can deteriorate. This leads to a need for pre-drying the feed streams, prior to capturing carbon dioxide molecules. This, again, significantly increases energy consumption and operational costs. The reticular materials of Atoco, on the other hand, eliminate the need for pre-drying altogether. This not only reduces energy consumption but also simplifies implementation, making carbon capture more accessible and scalable for existing facilities, driving down CAPEX requirements in the process.

        Dr. Taha. Credit: Atoco

        At the end of the day, all our advances on the materials engineering side are directed at optimizing the business case for our clients; meaning these novel solid-state materials need to be robust and durable, and they need to enable a high degree of energy and cost efficiency. 

        What is your background and why did you take part in this venture? 

        Backed by more than 20 years of experience in R&D technology commercialization and entrepreneurship, I’ve spent recent years focused on bringing solutions from the world of nanotechnology research into the market to solve critical climate change-related problems. The scale and severity of the climate emergency mean that we need to bring technology out of the lab and into the market faster than ever before. This is where my expertise lies, and it’s been amazing to see how quickly the field is moving. This genuine sense of purpose is shared with the founder, Prof. Omar Yaghi, and the entire employee base. 

        I’ve been privileged to work with exceptionally talented people and cutting-edge technologies over the last two decades, since my early research activities at the CICTR Lab at Penn State, my industrial R&D experience at Intel’s technology group in Oregon and going through the challenges of co-founding and leading two ICT startups. Since 2018, while leading Revonence’s nanotechnology ventures, I’ve had exceptional opportunities to work closely with the brightest minds at Northwestern University and the University of California Berkeley, leading the technology commercialization efforts for some of the most advanced discoveries in the field.

        As a technology commercialization leader, I believe we are closer today than ever to delivering transformational solutions to the climate change problem. I’m committed to deploying my experience and resources to foster a team that continuously challenges the status quo to deliver on that vision. 

        What are the products that you are trying to commercialize? 

        On the carbon capture side, we’re creating solid state carbon capture modules that are easy to integrate into existing systems, both PCC and DAC. In that sense, we are a supplier of carbon capture modules to OEMs of PCC and DAC systems.

        For post-combustion (PCC), we’re creating carbon capture modules that can be integrated into existing flue gas treatment systems of energy and industrial infrastructure, such as power plants and refineries, and in many cases without requiring substantial changes to the overall process. Our technology can be tailored to capture CO2 from various energy and industrial emissions, including fossil fuels, natural gas, and biomass.

        For instance, our carbon capture modules can easily be integrated into the flue gas treatment systems of power plants, refineries, and other industrial facilities without major process changes. These heavy industries are currently responsible for almost 20% of the world’s CO2 emissions and known to be notoriously hard to abate. 

        Our modules can also be integrated into existing building infrastructure and systems, helping to reduce the carbon footprint of commercial and domestic buildings by capturing and storing CO2 emissions generated from energy use, enabling carbon capture at the source, facilitating the retrofitting of buildings for carbon capture and storage applications.

        We’re also working on applications for direct air capture (DAC), extracting CO2 directly from the atmosphere; this is more challenging, as the target molecules are much more dispersed. Our technology shines the most in this scenario, as our carbon capture modules are capable of capturing CO2 from direct air with substantially less energy requirements compared to existing technologies.  

        Our technology can also be incorporated into ventilation systems or integrated into adsorption-based air cleaning devices to capture CO2 directly from indoor air at residential and commercial buildings. 

        What are the competitive advantages in terms of capturing CO2? 

        Our technology which relies on our novel reticular materials can bring down the cost of carbon capture substantially, and as mentioned earlier, the carbon capture stage represents the biggest cost contributor in the overall CCUS process. Our technology can achieve this substantial cost reduction through three key features of our technology. First, our solid-state carbon capture modules have high CO2 capture capacities even when capturing CO2 out of the atmosphere, or out of flue gas containing low CO2 concentrations.

        Credit: Blue Planet Studio | Shutterstock

        Second, our technology enables the separation of the captured CO2 at much lower regeneration temperatures, at around 60 degrees Celsius, compared to 120 degrees Celsius or higher temperatures used in most of the existing technologies. Third, our technology operates in the presence of humidity without compromising the CO2 capture capacities, which eliminates the need for drying the direct air or the flue gas before the CO2 capture stage, as is the case in most of the existing technologies.  

        These three features enable our technology to achieve more than 50% reduction, on average, in the required energy to capture and separate CO2 out of direct air or flue gas with low concentrations of CO2. Additionally, the fact that our technology requires much lower temperatures to separate the captured CO2 opens the door to utilizing many sources of low-grade waste heat from various industrial processes in the carbon capture process. 

        Finally, the solid-state nature and the relatively low regeneration temperature of our technology make it safer and more suitable for domestic carbon capture applications.

        How do you plan to bring them to scale? 

        Regarding the reticular materials inside our carbon capture modules, the industry has early on demonstrated that scaling such materials is both possible and economically feasible. For our part, we will gradually ramp up the scaling of our manufacturing capabilities in line with demand. This involves adapting existing equipment to produce these new materials in much larger quantities in preparation for product commercialization. 

        As for the final product – the carbon capture module – one advantage that we have when we come to scaling is that our technology doesn’t require building the whole carbon capture facilities from scratch; we will be joining forces with the operators of existing DAC and PCC carbon capture facilities to upgrade their CO2 capture and separation modules to our modules to realize the substantial reduction in energy requirements. 

        What do you need right now to be able to do that? (maybe resources/ collaborators/ time/ anything else)?

        We have a solid roadmap in place, and in line with that one of the key objectives in the time to come is working with OEMs and other technology partners to validate our technology in the field. Naturally, that could also involve the incorporation of our modules into existing or new-build systems. We know that high upfront costs, high operation and maintenance costs, and high energy consumption are all major concerns across the industry – and we look forward to discussing how our novel solid-state carbon capture modules address these concerns.

        As with much of the rest of the carbon capture industry, the main challenges that we see are being able to put a definitive price on carbon, and the development of more robust carbon markets. There’s no reason that the carbon capture industry can’t stand on its own two feet, but we need the policies to get us to the point where we have a functioning market. It’s probably a bit of an overused cliché, but it’s true – we are going to need to find new ways of collaborating between government, energy providers, OEMs, and many different stakeholders to find the right political and economic mechanisms. 

        For us though, the fundamental goal is that when these mechanisms become clear, we have the right technology to support them – and that’s where we see the technology we are developing playing an essential role.

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