Kilimanjaro Energy Seeks to Pop Loose Trillions’ Worth of Underground Oil, Save the World

5/2/11Follow @xconomy

Four years ago when Ned David and his wife were thinking of starting a family, a realization hit. Why was he using his knowledge of chemistry and entrepreneurship to start biotech companies? Wasn’t there something more meaningful to do with his life than come up with a new diabetes drug or antibiotic?

How about saving the world?

“When you are holding your son, this little being, you suddenly realize you are finite,” David says. “Humanity survived pretty well for tens of thousands of years without access to modern medicine. But if we don’t reinvent our energy production system, we might not survive the next 10,000.”

So David, a big thinker who has co-founded five different companies with Arch Venture Partners that have raised a combined $700 million, switched his focus to alternative energy about four years ago. The first step came through co-founding algae biofuel high-flier Sapphire Energy. He’s now deeply involved in a new startup, San Francisco-based Kilimanjaro Energy, pursuing another big idea. If Kilimanjaro can pass some early technical hurdles, it could help meet the world’s voracious demand for fossil fuels for decades, reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and cut down on carbon emissions—although maybe not enough in the near-term to save the snows of Kilimanjaro.

The idea at Kilimanjaro is to make industrial machines that capture carbon dioxide from the air. If it can be done efficiently at large scale, Kilimanjaro plans to compress the CO2 and pump it underground into old abandoned oil wells. That ought to force out oil that is trapped in porous rock underground, David says. Estimates are that half of the world’s oil reserves are trapped deep underground in porous rock, and that pressured CO2 forced underground could pop loose 15 to 30 percent of that oil. The process could open up a market worth $250 trillion worldwide, David says. In the U.S. alone, there is thought to be enough underground oil to meet 100 percent of U.S. oil demand for about 15 years, he says.

Ned David

Enhanced oil recovery of the sort that Kilimanjaro is pursuing “is the single largest business opportunity I’m aware of anywhere in the world,” David says.

This concept, which David will be on hand to discuss at Xconomy Seattle’s alternative fuels event coming up May 19, is still in its embryonic phase. There’s no way anyone can say for sure if it will be even half as good as David hopes. But the story of how David settled on this idea says a lot about the challenge of re-inventing the fuel business of today.

David, along with others at Arch Venture Partners, started thinking about carbon capture about two years ago for a different reason—as a way to feed algae organisms. Sapphire, if it is ever going to use algae to produce crude oil at commercial scale, is going to have an immense appetite for carbon dioxide to feed the algae. And the way to get that today is through having commercial vendors get CO2 from industrial processes, compress it in a highly purified form, and deliver it on semi trucks to open algae ponds.

“I realized that’s not going to work, it can’t be done at scale if every carbon molecule has to be delivered to you by a guy in a truck,” David says. “If you want to do it at scale, you have to get CO2 from the air.”

So David looked around and got familiar with … Next Page »

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  • b cole

    To learn about the fast-track commercialization of the algae production industry you may want to contact the National Algae Association, the trade association. They have the first 100 acre algae farm specs, designs, CAPEX and OPEX.

  • http://www.gaslandthemovie.com/ John

    With all of the problems with fracking – pumping liquids into the ground to get more oil out – I really do not like the idea of pumping CO2 in to push the oil out. Anyone who has not seen the documentary “Gasland” should watch it.
    Combining the CO2 capture with an algae farm is a much better way to go.

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