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.
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 research led by Klaus Lackner, a physicist at Columbia University. Lackner’s work focused on carbon capture for a more conventional purpose—reducing the greenhouse emissions of coal-fired power plants that the nation relies on today for a cheap and steady supply of electricity. Eventually, with the help of Gary Comer, the billionaire co-founder of Land’s End, a company called Global Research Technologies was founded in Arizona to develop commercial applications of Lackner’s ideas with about $8 million in support, David says.
Kilimanjaro raised its first $3.5 million from Arch last July, and now has a team of seven people working on the technology from labs in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood. The company is building its first so-called “alpha prototype” this year, that’s about the size of a Honda Civic, David says. Next year, Kilimanjaro plans to build three machines that can capture 1 ton a day of carbon dioxide from the air. By 2013, Kilimanjaro plans to build bigger machines that are 75 feet in diameter, and which capture 10 tons of CO2 a day, he says. The hope is to get the machines ready for the market in 2014. If all goes according to plan, big oilfields could have hundreds of these machines capturing hundreds of tons of CO2 per day, he says.
The technology is supposed to work by using water vaporization to drive the purification process that separates CO2 from the rest of the molecules in the air. The process is only supposed to work in climates without much humidity—like Northwest Texas, Arizona, or the Great Plains.
It does take energy to build and operate the Kilimanjaro machines. And, obviously, if your object is to obtain petrochemicals, they will get burned in engines that emit carbon. The process of capturing and pumping so much carbon underground, however, should reduce the overall carbon footprint, however, by about half, David says. How much it will cost to perform this new process is still unknown.
“It’s not sustainable, it’s not green. But it’s greener than what we do today,” David says.
The bigger idea is to use much of this carbon capture potential to feed algae, which then pump out oils in a more renewable, sustainable fashion. But that effort is a few years further off in the future, and adds a couple layers of technical risk at companies like Sapphire and Kilimanjaro. The beauty of going after enhanced oil recovery in the beginning is that if it works even a little bit, there will be no problem selling the oil that comes from underground.
“There’s a screaming immediate market need with major geopolitical implications,” he says.
There are other companies attempting carbon capture from the air at industrial scales, including New York-based Global Thermostat and Calgary, Alberta-based Carbon Engineering.
While there will almost surely be environmental objections to any effort to increase the supply of fossil fuels, David says it’s not realistic to think about any other source of energy in the near-term that can really satisfy growing global demand.
Nothing is going to stop that market force of human nature, as people around the world have a desire to create a brighter economic future for their kids. David, the proud father of a two-year- old son, says he can relate. That’s a big reason why he wants to start capturing carbon in a way that will reduce emissions in the short-term, and over time, play a key supporting role in a more sustainable world powered by algae-derived biofuels.
If it works, David is betting that his son, grandkids, and humanity will live on for another 10,000 years. “Humans aspire for self-advancement,” he says. “This is the stuff of dreams.”