Can California's Carbon Queen Recycle Pollution?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s high time we put carbon emissions to work.
By Zara Stone
If tickets to Mars were on sale, Etosha Cave would be the first in line — and she’d prefer a one-way trip, thank you. “If you want to be an explorer, you go out there and make it your home,” she says. Cave’s personal moonshot is metamorphosing environment-polluting carbon dioxide into useful products like petroleum. The project sounds like something out of the Hogwarts School of Wizardry, but it originated at Stanford University. In 2015 Cave co-founded the startup Opus 12 with two fellow Stanford grads, their mission statement to transform CO2 into a cleantech resource.
Today, CO2 emissions are a bigger climate concern than President Donald Trump. In 2017 the Global Carbon Project reported 41 billion metric tons, the highest in recorded history. The fallout from temperatures rising globally was considered so catastrophic that the Paris climate agreement was formed, with member countries pledging to prevent a temperature increase of more than 3.6 degrees (last year Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the accord).
Converting CO2 into cha-cha-ching is a $300 billion market opportunity.
Opus 12 is not the only company investigating solutions. Vancouver-based startup Carbon Engineering (funded by Bill Gates) has a method of sucking CO2 out of the air, and Zurich’s Climeworks works along the same lines. But cleantech isn’t sexy to investors and venture capital funding has slowed: Investment dropped almost 30 percent between 2011 and 2016, from $7.5 billion to $5.24 billion, according to the Brookings Institute.
For Cave, this problem is personal. Growing up in Houston, Texas, she remembers an abandoned oil-waste site near her house, an ugly mark on her childhood memories. “That really affected me in terms of thinking about waste from oil and gas,” she tells OZY. A self-described “science geek,” she attended a magnet school for engineering and was part of the National Society of Black Engineers in high school. She wanted to be an astronaut but gravitated to engineering instead — a shift she partly credits her older brother for. “He wouldn’t play with me unless we were building cities or playing Teenage Turtles!”
After working in Antarctica at the McMurdo Research Station, Cave’s interest in renewable energy led her to a master’s and Ph.D. at Stanford, where she was attracted to the CO2 conversion research her adviser, Tom Jaramillo, was conducting. “I liked that it had an impact on climate change,” she says. So did NASA, Shell and SoCalGas, all of which extended grant money to fund her startup. For NASA, converting Mars’ 95 percent CO2 atmosphere into plastics could significantly save space on shuttle loads — bringing Cave one step closer to outer space.
Cave walks me to the electrochemical reactor in her lab in Berkeley, California. It’s a shoebox-size box where the magic happens. Here, CO2 gets recycled into other fuels by adding electricity, water and proprietary metal catalysts. At Stanford, she’d worked out the conversion to 16 different products, but the focus is now on their contracted work, namely petroleum and methane. Converting CO2 into cha-cha-ching is a $300 billion market opportunity. “Our whole purpose is to take CO2 and make valuable things out of it,” she says. The dishwasher-size version of the reactor should ship this year, at a cost of slightly under $1 million.
But with big money comes big pressure, and as a woman and POC in Silicon Valley, Cave has had to struggle with sexism and discrimination. She’s built up a solid support network of other female founders to help. Then there’s learning how to disseminate her work for the layman, and an assist came from an unexpected source: her appointed coach for her TEDxStanford talk. “She was very clear that words [like thermodynamics] wouldn’t resonate with a wider audience,” Cave explains.
Today, Cave spends more time behind her computer working on proposals, outreach and business development than in the lab, but carves out time to go swimming and hang out with friends. She characterizes herself as an “ideas and problem-solving person” — but that’s not what her colleagues say. At a recent Opus 12 retreat, they identified her skill set as “communication” and “relationship building.” “She’s great at getting people excited about her vision for the future,” says Opus 12 CEO Nicholas Flanders, who adds that her enthusiasm and energy are integral to scaling the company.
But don’t sign off on Opus 12 just yet. “The cost of CO2 removal is $50 to $100 per ton for current power-plant scrubbers,” says Warren Schirtzinger, CEO of High Tech Strategies, a cleantech consulting firm. “All of that energy costs money, which is ultimately paid by consumers and businesses.” Schirtzinger’s rightly wary about Opus 12’s energy needs, which use a lot of electricity and water, offsetting the benefits. He’s also concerned that they’re too disruptive to get adopted, explaining that 80 percent of the market looks for gradual improvements that don’t affect day-to-day operations. But if they can get the cost down and streamline the adoption process, he sees them having a “very bright future.”
Figuring out how to get cheap renewable energy is part of Cave’s plan, and at scale, she believes she could potentially counteract one-third of global CO2 emissions. “I feel like there’s an enhanced sense of urgency since the election,” she says, referring to 2016. With her first shipment scheduled for late 2018 and another product in the works for 2020, she’s wasting no time in doing her part to reduce industrial greenhouse gas. The R. Buckminster Fuller quote at the top of Cave’s LinkedIn profile sums this up nicely: “Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.”