Minnesota startup aims to permanently remove carbon dioxide from atmosphere

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Dr. Andrew Jones is the CEO and co-founder of Carba, a Minnesota-based company that specializes in low-energy permanent carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere.
By Leslie Plesser of Shuttersmack Photography

Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing our planet. Glaciers are melting. Water levels are rising. Temperatures too. Wildfires are tearing through forests and neighborhoods. Some storms are super charged and do major damage.

What’s at the root of climate change? Carbon dioxide — created by the fossil fuels we burn. Andrew Jones is CEO and co-founder of Carba, a Minnesota-based company that is trying to figure out how to permanently remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — and wants to share that technology.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing our planet. Glaciers are melting, water levels are rising, temperatures as well. Wildfires are tearing through forests and neighborhoods. Some storms are supercharged, and they do major damage.

What's at the root of climate change? Carbon dioxide created by the fossil fuels that we burn. Dr. Andrew Jones is CEO and co-founder of Carba, a Minnesota-based company that's trying to figure out how to permanently remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and to share that technology with industry. Welcome, to the program, Doctor.

ANDREW JONES: Hi, Cathy, Thanks so much for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Hey, thanks for being here. Let's do a little bit of a science primer for folks. Why is carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, such a potent player in climate change?

ANDREW JONES: Yeah, it's not that carbon dioxide itself as a molecule is particularly bad. We actually require it on Earth, or the entire planet would freeze over. The problem with carbon dioxide and why we're targeting it is that it's actually-- it's two reasons. It's incredibly good at absorbing the heat emitted from Earth, and the second one is just the sheer quantity of carbon dioxide that we've put into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels.

So to give you an idea of how much that is, it's-- we're on track this year to emit about 36.6 billion tons. So that's 36 trillion kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And that just eclipses all the other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxides that are present.

CATHY WURZER: And, of course, this is contributing to climate change. So let's talk about the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Talk about the process, if you would, please.

ANDREW JONES: Yeah, so scientists have looked at carbon dioxide and how do we get to a place where we can mitigate the effects of climate change? And they've really determined that there's two things that need to happen. First, we need to stop emitting so much carbon dioxide.

So that's transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables and other carbon-neutral energy. And the second thing is that we actually need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere because we've just put so much into the atmosphere. And that needs to occur at an amount of about 10 billion tons per year. So about 20% to 25% of the carbon that we have to abate actually also needs to be removed to get us back to normal levels of CO2 of around 300 parts per million.

CATHY WURZER: Well, that is-- that's a big, big task. And then, locking it away for decades, centuries, or millennia? In terms of removing the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. and then locking it away? Oh, I have a feeling that we lost Andrew.

ANDREW JONES: OK, hold on one second.

CATHY WURZER: There you are.

ANDREW JONES: Can you hear me now?

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, I can, yes.

ANDREW JONES: OK, all right.

CATHY WURZER: No, that's OK.

ANDREW JONES: That was--

CATHY WURZER: Did you hear my question?

ANDREW JONES: I did, yes. So you're exactly right. We have to remove 10 billion tons and permanently store that 10 billion tons somewhere-- or get it off of Earth, if we can do that.

CATHY WURZER: So and there are different approaches to removing carbon dioxide. There's a bunch. I don't want to go through all of them. Direct air capture comes to mind, carbon sequestration, reforestation. Let's talk about your company, Carba, which specializes in permanent carbon dioxide removal-- I'm on your website-- here through biomass, torrefaction, and burial. Can you explain that?

ANDREW JONES: Yeah. Yeah, so as you alluded to, there's actually a lot of ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And each of those ways have different pros and cons. And so when we started Carba, we looked at all those different ways, and we came to look at using nature-- the best of nature, which is plants and trees-- which already suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And then, can we take those plants and trees and make them a more permanent storage of carbon? And so that's the torrefaction piece.

And torrefaction is a Latin word which just means "I burn" or "I parch." So essentially, what we're doing is a low-temperature heating of the biomass which converts those cellulose and hemicellulose molecules into a more recalcitrant solid carbon.

CATHY WURZER: OK, that's interesting. Is this something like the natural processes that produce the coal we use for fuel?

ANDREW JONES: Yeah, that's exactly right. So about 300 million years ago, all the trees that were growing, there wasn't a natural way to break down that tree biomass or those cellulose molecules. And so those trees fell down, and they actually just started piling up because of the lack of microbial or fungal activity that could break them down.

| so over millions of years, that's what created those deposits of coal. And then, over hundreds of millions of years, the pressure and the heat converted it to a char, or a charcoal, that we've dug up and burned. So essentially, what Carba is trying to do is reverse that process and take trees, which sequester carbon dioxide, and then convert them back to a coal or a char and bury that back underground.

CATHY WURZER: What's the problematic, maybe, pollution-- how do you keep from polluting when you do this, when you burn and you create the char?

ANDREW JONES: Yep, yeah, that's a great question. The burying part, so any time you bury anything, you have to worry about, is it going to leach? Is it going to flow? And this is true with any carbon dioxide removal technology-- so whether you're pumping a liquid CO2 underground or burying char.

And the beauty with the char is that it's actually an organic molecule, and it's already being used around the world in agricultural--

[AUDIO OUT]

CATHY WURZER: Oh, I have a feeling that our technology isn't quite working as well as we thought it might today.

ANDREW JONES: Oh.

CATHY WURZER: There you are, you're back.

ANDREW JONES: Where did I drop off? My phone keeps going to sleep here.

CATHY WURZER: It's all right. Yeah, your phone does keep going to sleep.

ANDREW JONES: Yep, OK.

CATHY WURZER: There you go.

ANDREW JONES: I'm back.

CATHY WURZER: Well, we've got about a couple of minutes here. And so I need to-- you're doing a great job explaining this. And you were talking about trying to mitigate any pollution concerns, either as you're burning this and making the chart or burying it, right? So you've developed this technology. Are you trying to-- how do you get businesses and industries to buy into this?

ANDREW JONES: Yeah, exactly. The business world right now has a huge push towards net negative or net zero commitments. So there's over 3,000 companies that have committed to net zero. There's a lot of shareholder pressure for a lot of these companies, including oil companies, to be net zero. And so there's pressure going down the line, and these companies are looking for ways to either transition to renewables or remove and offset the carbon that they emit that they can't get rid of in other ways.

And so that's what we're targeting. Companies like Microsoft and Stripe have been early adopters for carbon offsets. And we have RFPs in for those as well.

CATHY WURZER: All right, I have run out of time. Thank you, Andrew. I appreciate your time. Good luck.

ANDREW JONES: Yes, thank you so much, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Dr. Andrew Jones is CEO and co-founder of Carba. That's a Minnesota-based company that is trying to offer solutions to permanently remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. You can learn more about them online by going to Carba-- that's C-A-R-B-A, Carba, dot E-C-O.

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