SkyNano Startup To Convert CO2 Into Solid Carbon: Part 1 – Technology And Funding.
Originally published on Forbes.com on August 17, 2022
A quick comparison with underground storage of CO2 reveals a strong upside when instead its converted to solid carbon products.
A lot of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will still be generated by 2050 – some estimates are 10-15 Billion tonnes per year. This “leftover” GHG has to be disposed of in some way if the world is to achieve net zero by 2050. One method, carbon capture and underground storage (CCUS) has been studied the most because it has been implemented by oil and gas companies for decades, although there are serious limitations.
But there is a new kid on the block. A company called SkyNano, begun in 2017, uses an electrochemical process to convert CO2 to solid carbon nanotubes rather than a thermochemical process used in conventional nanotube production. The only byproduct is oxygen in contrast to carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from other methods.
Carbon nanotubes are hollow tubes of carbon with a size in nanometers. These solid carbons are tough and used in armor for vehicles. They can carry electric currents and are used in transmission cables. They are flexible and used in woven fabric.
Since the process can also be used to convert streams of CO2 emitted from cement and steel-making factories, it holds out big promise for removing hard-to-abate emissions.
The CEO of SkyNano is Anna Douglas who co-founded the company in 2017 during her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt with Prof. Cary Pint, the CTO of SkyNano. Anna graduated from Lee University with a degree in Mathematics and Chemistry in 2014 and completed a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt in 2019 in Interdisciplinary Materials Science. Her work related to SkyNano’s technology has been highlighted in many peer-reviewed scientific publications, a 2019 Forbes 30 under 30 award, a 2020 R&D100 Award, a 2021 TechConnect Innovation Award, and a 2022 Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award from the State of Tennessee.
Below is Part 1 of an interview with Anna which is keyed to the new technology and funding of the startup company, including a comparison with carbon capture, injection underground, and storage (CCUS).
Part 2 will follow shortly and is geared toward markets and climate solutions.
1. What’s the background story of the SkyNano company formation?
While I was an undergraduate student, I did a summer internship at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH, and completely fell in love with nanotechnology and materials science. I went to Vanderbilt to pursue a Ph.D. in materials science and began working on nanomaterials for energy storage as a research topic, as I felt strongly that energy storage was (and is) the most significant bottleneck to sustainable energy infrastructure. While I was studying batteries, I realized the way we synthesize and mine many materials that makeup batteries really isn’t very sustainable, and can even undermine the use of batteries as “clean” technology.
My Ph.D. advisor and I started looking into other ways to make carbon structures, which have a myriad of uses in battery chemistries and discovered an electrochemical process that had been studied since the early 1900s to convert CO2 into solid carbon, but without a high selectivity for specific carbon structures. We thought if we approached this topic from a nanomaterials synthesis background, we might be able to improve the selectivity which is required to bring the technology into the marketplace. Soon after that, we got our first bit of funding from the Department of Energy’s Innovation Crossroads program, a lab-embedded entrepreneurial program, and the rest is history.
2. What is SkyNano’s fundamental underlying technology?
SkyNano’s underlying technology is based upon a chemical process that has been studied since the early 1900s in academic labs across the globe. In essence, it is based on the chemical absorption of CO2 via oxide molecules to form a carbonate, then the electrochemical decomposition of that carbonate molecule back into its original oxide. The net reaction here is simply CO2 à C(solid) + O2(gas). The implications of this process are profound, as it’s a simple 4-electron process to produce solid carbon from gaseous carbon dioxide.
CO2 is extremely stable, which is part of why it has become problematic in our atmosphere, but when we bring it back to its solid carbon form, that is also extremely stable and lends to permanent carbon storage. This is an important distinction because many CO2 transformation technologies produce end-products that will re-emit CO2 in their life cycle. These are at-best carbon neutral, but don’t provide for long-term permanent storage. Solid products like our process present the best of both worlds: carbon transformation (making an economical product from CO2) and sequestration (long-term storage).
3. How is the SkyNano company funded? Who are the engaged stakeholders? What are your funding goals?
As of August 2022, SkyNano has raised ~$8.5M (million) in non-dilutive funding from a variety of federal, state, and commercial sources. Our primary federal backers are the US Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the US Department of Defense. SkyNano’s technology touches the strategic goals of nearly every federal agency, either through our decarbonization efforts or through the specific materials we’re producing, which have been identified as critical materials of national security. To that effect, we have a range of engaged stakeholders, including emissions sources, policymakers concerned about decarbonization, customers of carbon removal credits, and customers of the materials we produce.
Since our inception, we’ve been laser-focused on the customers of the materials we produce from CO2. Solid carbon additive materials come in a wide range of structures, and we’re able to address many of today’s existing marketplace needs along with creating new markets through lower-priced advanced carbon materials. Our funding goals remain focused on meeting customer needs, and for that reason are centered on project-based funding sourced both from R&D grants and paid pilots with customers.
4. You get your CO2 by direct capture from the air. That’s not very efficient, right. Can you also get it from streams of concentrated CO2 from cement and steel factories and other hard-to-abate sectors?
That’s correct. It’s not very efficient to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. Our technology certainly can operate as such a direct air capture process, but it’s far more efficient when we work with input streams that are at least 1% CO2. These are waste streams found in industries ranging from cement and steel, to chemicals, and energy production. We currently have an ongoing collaboration with the Tennessee Valley Authority, our country’s largest public utility, to demonstrate that flue gas from combined cycle natural gas power plants can be used to produce solid carbon products.
There is a range of stakeholders across the carbon emissions chain. At one end are a few technologies being very suitable for direct air capture to produce a concentrated CO2 stream. At the other end are many technologies capable of processing high-purity CO2 (>90%). There are far fewer technologies that can work with 1-80% CO2 without pre-concentration, and this is where a vast majority of our CO2 emissions come from today. SkyNano’s technology works really well to couple directly onto point source emissions and decarbonizes some of the hard-to-abate sectors we all rely on for today’s quality of life.
5. How expensive is your process compared with carbon capture and underground injection and storage of CO2 (CCUS) which will probably require a carbon tax unless oil is produced at the other end.
The economics challenging CCUS is primarily that there is no economic upside outside of a possible carbon tax, so the overall exercise is a net loss for companies. Big companies are still considering CCUS right now due to the maturity of that technology and their desire to decarbonize quickly, but it is an overall net loss in every case, even with tax-based incentives.
SkyNano’s process is economically feasible based on the value of our output product from CO2, solid carbon, and tax incentives would simply be a bonus. In fact, under the current 45Q tax structure, the potential revenue from tax incentives is negligible compared to the revenue from our carbon product.
When it comes to costs, some of the challenges with CCUS are permitting, regulatory hurdles, and other costs that aren’t always obvious when evaluating the technology on its merits. For SkyNano, our costs are primarily derived from the electrical energy it takes to drive our process, and we expect to benefit over time from the projected decrease in energy pricing with the onset of more renewables into our grid.
For a few more Q&A see SkyNano Startup To Convert CO2 Into Solid Carbon: Part 2 – Markets And A Climate Solution.