The Success Of One Company Could Just Lead The U.S. To Become Carbon Negative Relatively Quickly

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There is a reasonable chance that the US will become carbon negative in the foreseeable future. This prospect holds despite the political dilution of President Biden’s major climate initiative; and it holds despite the recent Supreme Court ruling to hamstring the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate industrial emissions of greenhouse gases.

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Conceivably, within a decade a single company will be able to remove more carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere than the US emits during an entire year.

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In this post, I describe one such company. The company is Noya, which just turned two. Noya is headquartered in San Francisco at the North end of Silicon Valley. The company was founded by entrepreneurs Daniel Cavero and Josh Santos.

Noya’s business is carbon dioxide removal (CDR) using direct air capture (DAC). The IPCC has made clear that CDR needs to be part of the solution to achieve the long-run goals of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

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Noya’s founders have come up with an incredibly clever and innovative approach to CDR using DAC. What makes Noya’s approach so important is that it overcomes significant obstacles associated with CDR using DAC. These obstacles involve the combination of large upfront capital requirements and long installation times.

To understand the nature of the obstacles, consider the following: In rough terms, humans currently emit approximately 40 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. (One Gt is 1 billion metric tons, and a metric ton is 10% larger than a standard ton.) Emitting CO2 is easy, but doing the reverse is difficult to do profitably and at scale. It is difficult because atmospheric CO2 has very low concentration, roughly 415 parts per million. This low concentration presents a challenge.

To picture the challenge, think about the following: You would need to filter 1.1 Houston Astrodomes of air, corresponding to 1.3 million cubic meters of air, just to extract a single metric ton of CO2 with 100% effective technology.

Instead of starting from scratch, Noya’s clever way of addressing the challenge is to retrofit existing infrastructure to capture carbon dioxide. The infrastructure consists of cooling towers, the units atop buildings that transfer heat from air conditioning and related systems to the atmosphere. What Noya does is retrofit cooling towers with its own equipment, equipment which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

In respect to the “Houston Astrodome” issue, the important thing to note is that there is a lot of airflow through medium and large-size cooling towers. Typical numbers lie in the range of 100,000 to 300,000 cubic feet per minute. Some large cooling towers feature much higher air flow,1 million cubic feet per minute or more.

Cooling towers are ideal vehicles for CDR because they move large volumes of air and are already sited and operating. Noya has developed a technology to exploit this feature, in order to extract CO2 from the atmosphere.

Noya captures CO2 from the air moving through these cooling towerspartners to durably sequester it underground and sells the resulting carbon removal credits.

There are approximately 2 million cooling towers in the US Noya estimates that there is a potential for its technology to remove more than 10 Gt of CO2 per year. This is more than the 6.5 Gt of current annual US emissions of CO2.

It is a cool solution.

At the same time, it needs to be said that having a successful CDR technology in no way implies that we can be cavalier about burning fossil fuels. As the Foundation for Climate Restoration tells us: Having an atmospheric carbon concentration of 415 is far too high, and we need to think about bringing it back down to its historical range, which has been below 300 for the last 850,000 years.

Happily, there are many CDR initiatives underway, many of which are documented by the OpenAir Collective, Some are DAC and others are biological. There are grounds for being optimistic that some will turn out to be effective and safe.

As in my other blog posts, I try not to make predictions about what will happen down the line. Instead I prefer to use the language of likelihood. This means that I do not predict, for example, that within a decade Noya will remove more CO2 from the atmosphere per year than the US emits. Instead, I describe future prospects that strike me as much more likely than most people currently believe.

Readers of my previous posts will be aware of similar statements. I have made about biased prior likelihood estimates. Those estimates pertained to inflation, stock market prices, pandemic deaths, cryptocurrency fragility, and the global failure to live up to the Paris climate agreement.

My point is that we need to think about Noya, and all of these issues through a risk lens. In its first two years, Noya has made impressive technological progress. However, it is still operating at a small scale. Noya will incur risk as it scales up from small volumes to large volumes.

What happens to the CO2 which Noya removes from the atmosphere? That CO2 needs to be sequestered rather than re-enter the atmosphere. Otherwise, what is the point of removing atmospheric CO2? Noya’s plan is to partner with other companies to utilize the CO2 in long-lived products or sequester the captured CO2 underground in geologic reservoirs. The firms currently developing these technologies are often themselves startups, which implies the existence of similar risk.

Risk is unavoidable, and the challenge is to assess it correctly and manage it effectively.

Risk is a big part of how Silicon Valley operates. Before starting Noya, both of its founders worked for Silicon Valley firms. Cavero worked for an AI robotics startup called Nod Labs, and Santos worked on EV powertrain development for Harley-Davidson
HOG
and on the Model 3 at Tesla
TSLA
before that.

I teach at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University, located in the heart of Silicon Valley. I have taught there long enough to remember my former students working at the iconic Silicon Valley companies at the time these companies were startups. Despite the presence of risk, I remember the sense of excitement those students communicated during the early days of Apple
AAPL
Cisco Systems
CSCO
and Google
GOOG
about the potential these companies had to revolutionize computers, the Internet, and digital search.

My current students, who have done projects with Noya, communicate the same sense of excitement. There is risk to accept, and also hope to embrace.

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Credit: www.forbes.com /

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