By Petya Trendafilova, Carbon Herald - Direct air capture is one of the carbon removal solutions that we need to balance out the excess CO2 emissions the society releases into the atmosphere annually. Global Thermostat is one of the pioneers in the space with experience and technology rooted in addressing effectively and impactfully the significant challenge.
We spoke with Nicholas Moore Eisenberger, Head of Market Development, Policy & Engagement at Global Thermostat who gave us valuable insights on the company’s journey towards scaling the direct air capture technology. Mr Eisenberger will also be one of the speakers at this year’s Carbon Unbound Summit which will take place in New York on May 11th and 12th.
My first question for you is what is Global Thermostat?
Global Thermostat is one of the world’s leading direct air capture companies. We were founded in 2010 and we spent about a decade focusing on the fundamental scientific principles of how you can remove CO2 from air most efficiently.
In 2020, after demonstrating the technology across several pilot facilities, we consolidated our research and development at our new headquarters in Denver, Colorado. In 2021, we began operating a continuously running semi-autonomous performance pilot at approximately 10 tons per year scale.
What is your role in the company? Why did you decide to join Global Thermostat?
I am an early investor in Global Thermostat and I’ve long been an adviser to the board. In 2022, I went in-house to really transition the company from a technology development organization to a commercial deployment business.
As part of that, we consolidated our headquarters, we hired Paul Nahi and we took a number of other steps to really prepare the business for scaling and growth. Now I lead the market development policy and engagement for Global Thermostat. I’m really focused on the external, commercial market.
I know you’re involved in other direct air capture-related organizations and companies, would you please share more about them?
I spent my entire professional career focused on scaling the clean economy as an investor, entrepreneur and a business leader. Around 15 years ago, I started getting more and more focused on climate change and carbon management. I had a number of experiences that really built up my passion for expertise in that space.
I led the fundraising for the Carbon XPRIZE. Carbon XPRIZE is an international competition for carbon capture and utilization solutions which was launched in 2015. They raised $100 million for the launch.
We also worked with the Wyoming government, the Alberta and Canadian federal government to start two test centers for carbon capture and utilization, which exists today.
As I went around the world fundraising for the XPRIZE competition, I met a growing number of organizations worldwide that were interested in working on carbon capture and utilization but weren’t connected.
So we launched something called the Circular Carbon Network – a joint initiative with XPRIZE, focused on providing data for the industry about the growing ecosystem to help accelerate capitalization and commercialization.
I also co-founded and sit on the board of the CREO Syndicate – a global network of family offices interested in investing in clean tech renewables and environmental opportunities. That represents several hundred families worldwide, with a total net worth of several trillion dollars, who are all interested in devoting some portion of that to those clean tech themes.
There I chair the Carbon Removal Committee which gave me a real insight into how top global investors are thinking about where to deploy capital in the emerging carbon removal ecosystem, also the challenges they’re facing, and the ways that they can work together with other stakeholders to overcome those challenges.
Then I saw the need to accelerate the development of the direct air capture ecosystem. I founded and sit on the board of The Direct Air Capture Coalition – a multi-stakeholder effort to educate, engage and mobilize society around direct air capture.
It’s not just an industry association, but an effort to bring together the different stakeholders, whether it’s the direct air capture companies, suppliers, investors, policymakers, civil society, academia, who have an interest in direct air capture being developed, sustainably equitably, and in a way that is economic and efficient.
All these experiences, in addition to my longtime association with Global Thermostat, have helped me see some of the challenges in taking an industry from basically nothing to global scale urgently and rapidly. It’s hard to turn the ship of humanity and to align all the different stakeholders, all the different processes and the capital, the policy, the supply chain, the public buy-in.
All of them need to get aligned for the industry to scale effectively. On one hand, I’ve seen the challenges, on the other hand, I’ve seen really dramatic progress in the last couple of years. When I went to Paris for the Paris Conference of the Parties in 2015 on climate change, I was talking about carbon removal and the need for carbon removal, and direct air capture.
Frankly, I was getting more or less blank stares. People understood the words, they may have heard about the concept, but it wasn’t on their radar screen, it wasn’t something that was seen as a priority or really understood. The same was true for direct air capture when Global Thermostat was founded by my father and another Columbia University professor, his partner.
When we were talking about direct air capture for the first 10 years, there was deep skepticism about whether it can be done, whether it can be done cost-effectively, and why it should be done.
Starting in 2018, you had the National Academy of Sciences reporting on negative emission technologies and charting paths for them to get to a very reasonable or attractive cost. You had the IPCC 1.5 degree report and everyday people were seeing growing evidence of climate change all around them. You also had technologies like Global Thermostat starting to mature and get pilots out there proving this actually works and can be done.
All of these factors started to come together in the last three to five years. There is a huge mountain we have to climb to really get to a scale to start removing CO2 from the atmosphere in a way that is meaningful for the climate. But the progress I’ve seen in the last couple of years has given me hope that we can do it if we continue bringing urgency and a mobilization mindset to the challenge.
Let’s talk more about the direct air capture technology of Global Thermostat or its solid absorption process. How is it more efficient than other DAC approaches?
We’ve spent over a decade focused on the fundamental material science, thinking about it at the molecular level – how do you encourage interactions between CO2 molecules in a surface to most efficiently capture it? We’ve identified and patented a number of different ways to do that, which we think are fundamentally advantaged to other approaches.
We have also tried to optimize the overall system of our kiloton unit so that we can encourage and manage those interactions at the molecular level in a way that is super efficient. We’ve patented many aspects of our overall system for direct air capture.
At the molecular level, we are passing air over an ultra-high surface area substrate that is coated with a proprietary surface and adsorbent, rapidly capturing CO2. It’s capturing a significant amount of the CO2 passing over that surface, with high efficiency and in a short period of time.
We then rapidly regenerate those contactors with low-temperature heat. We’re using widely available low-cost heat, and we’re able to cycle again quite rapidly. We believe that after a decade of really understanding the parameters that drive performance and push down costs, we are on a fundamentally advantaged cost pathway that we have protected.
We believe that we have one of the most advanced solutions in the world at this point. We also have a few peers who we respect deeply. We’re all in this for the same reasons, I work with many of the emerging and more mature direct air capture companies and I have a deep respect for everything that they’re doing.
We work very hard every day, to make sure the ecosystem is healthy and advancing in a way that benefits everyone in the industry.
Do you use heat or electricity to power the system?
We use both heat and electricity. Our system is basically agnostic to the sources of energy. There are a variety of ways to source the electricity – you can go from electricity to thermal or you can get thermal directly from a variety of different sources.
What is the cost per ton of capture using Global Thermostat’s DAC technology?
We don’t genuinely speak about specific cost factors. It’s really important to think about the cost trajectory that our technology and other technologies can get to. There are very few deployments out in the world right now and costs today per ton are several hundreds of dollars.
Solar energy for example when it had just a few deployments was extremely expensive. If we had stopped solar at that time because it was expensive, we wouldn’t have it now as one of the most powerful energy sources in the world.
That’s one of the highest growth in terms of where we can get to. We believe we’re on a fundamentally advantaged cost pathway from an economic standpoint and from the standpoint of addressing climate change. We believe we’ll be cost-attractive for a broad range of applications – for sequestration, for various carbon utilization markets.
When it comes to costs, we usually have a conversation in a deeply technical context with a specific customer, talking about where we are today and where we can get to. We think we’re competitive in the direct air capture industry even today. But yes, we’re early and costs are high now. We are very confident we can get them down to numbers that are advantaged from an energy perspective and economic from a market perspective.
The company also recently launched its first demonstration plant with a capacity to capture 1,000 tons of CO2 annually. What are the other direct air capture pilots of Global Thermostat launched so far and what is the future pipeline of plants’ developments?
This is our commercial-scale demonstration plant. We have done several pilots, starting back in 2011 at Stanford Research International, a well-known R&D facility in Palo Alto, California.
We did our second pilot in 2013, a third in 2018, and a fourth in 2021 which was a performance pilot plant that is been running more or less continuously on a semi-autonomous basis at our headquarters.
After that we launched this commercial scale, kilotons scale demonstration plant that started operating in late 2022. We unveiled it publicly on April 4 in Colorado with industry stake stakeholders.
We’re seeing a significant and growing level of interest from parties willing to work with us on deployments at various scales. We have some customers we’re talking to that are very interested in the small-scale plant like our pilot performance plant in the 10s of tons. The system is very small but the idea is to get it out very quickly so that clients can test the value chain.
We have a very significant level of interest in our kiloton scale solutions for a variety of applications, carbon sequestration and carbon-to-value applications. We are also having conversations globally for a broad variety of sequestration and carbon-to-value applications with top-tier partners. The larger-scale conversations in the 10s of thousands, 100s of thousands and millions of tons of applications are at an earlier stage.
We have a project that we’re working on with partners, funded by the DOE, to do a front-end engineering and design of a 100,000-ton plus direct air capture plant. We’re currently completing that project with our engineering partners and we will be sharing more about it later this year.
We are now focused on getting a limited number of deployments in the field, up and running as soon as possible, at a modest size in the kiloton, multi-kiloton scale. This is going to help us and our partners to get the experience as quickly as possible that we both need, with minimal complaint costs and complexity, to scale from there.
We are focused on getting to the megaton scale and beyond by 2030. We believe the best pathway to get there is to deploy a limited number of modest-sized multi-kiloton scale plans with aligned partners, as soon as possible.
Do you plan to license the technology to project developers or work with partners and build the plants yourself?
Our focus is on producing and designing the world’s best direct air capture solution. We are not licensing the technology broadly but we will rather work with developers and owner-operators on project deployments where we will supply the technology directly. We will sell it to them with the associated services to get it up and running.
We also provide the design for the balance of plant. Any good engineering company around the world can build that and we want to facilitate the success of these projects. We don’t want to run the plants or develop these projects.
We believe the renewable energy industry was built through this model where technology providers like us would focus on being the best at the technology, and then they would work with organizations that are really good at developing and running the projects. That’s what has worked for the renewables very successfully and that’s what we think is going to be the right model here.
What do you think is the fastest way for direct air capture technology to get to a global scale?
At the company level, I’ve outlined our model – build the best direct air capture technology, provide it to developers and owner-operators around the world that want to deploy DAC solutions for a variety of applications.
At the policy level, the United States among others has really taken a lead. It is providing direct funding, for example through the DAC hubs where DOE allocated $3.5 billion for four different DAC hub locations, intended to extract a million tons a year in the next four or five years.
The federal government also passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the 45Q tax credit where there’s a $180 credit for direct air capture sequestration. There is a variety of other US government incentives for carbon management that have really put the US front and center as a leader in carbon removal and direct air capture.
Other countries like Japan, to an increasing extent Europe, are starting to really put in place similar incentives and support for accelerating carbon removal and direct air capture.
We are also seeing a significant increase in the amount of corporate interest in carbon removal. There have been a number of corporations willing to provide off takes for carbon removal at a relatively high cost. They’re helping to pay for companies like us to ultimately go down the cost trajectory and achieve lower costs that we know are very doable.
It’s really important that we see more corporate support for carbon removal at these early stages, because that will accelerate the timeframe to get to those lower costs and those larger deployments.
We also need to make sure that we’re having the conversations with communities and civil society about how to do this in a way that is sustainable and equitable – that’s a very important angle. All these pieces need to continue to come together. The work on the scale has to be done collaboratively and it has to be done with a mobilization mindset.
We cannot simply do what we’ve been doing and expect to get there. In carbon removal, even though we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress we don’t have yet that mindset globally and we are not doing yet whatever it takes to get there.
Are you planning any participation in large scale developments or hubs?
We have not yet announced participation in specific DAC hubs. We are involved in a number of different DAC hub consortiums and we will be providing details. We are interested in the DAC hubs, we think they’re an important and valuable tool and we want to be working with partners to explore those.
Can you tell us more about Global Thermostat’s partnerships, who are the companies you have partnered with or you plan to work with?
We have relationships with the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DOD). They’ve been very important and valuable partners to us. We have relationships with a broad number of global engineering companies. In some of our DOD work, it’s publicly known that we work with Sargent & Lundy, and Black & Veatch.
There are many highly competent, global EPCs that we’re excited to continue to work with on deployments. We have had a joint development agreement with Exxon in the past and we continue to explore opportunities for commercializing and deploying direct air capture with them.
We have a publicly announced relationship with Tokyo Gas to explore deployments in Japan. And we have quite a few other partners we work with across the space that I can’t comment on publicly. There are also an increasing number of well known companies that are interested in carbon removal that we are in deep conversation with.
Global Thermostat appointed a new CEO in 2022. How will that change the company’s future direction, development and strategy?
In 2022, I came inside the company as it became obvious it needs to move from a technology development organization to a commercial deployment business. The market was maturing and our technology was ready to be commercialized.
I really felt it was important for us to have the leadership that had the experience of scaling a technology business from its earliest stages to a globally successful business that is also having a significant impact.
And Paul did that within Enphase Energy. He was the founding CEO, he ran the business for over 10 years, he grew it from zero revenue to over $300 million, and he took the company public.
We’re thrilled to have Paul as he brings with him real experience of how to build a business, how to work with customers and developers to scale it, how to attract additional talent and build out the internal infrastructure of the business.
He’s been with us for nine months now and we’re very much seeing the benefits of his strategic insight and experience from how the solar industry was built. He believes and I believe that we will be most successful if we are providing an economic product, a product that is high performing, at low cost, and in a model that is attractive to the marketplace.
In your business model, you want to be involved in both utilization and sequestration of the captured CO2, is that correct?
Yes that’s correct. Utilization for us is carbon to building products, carbon to advanced materials, carbon to synthetic fuels and other applications. We see three opportunities – one is to provide CO2 for industrial gas uses or gaseous CO2 for existing uses of it as a gas.
There’s a broad range of uses as it is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. We believe we can provide an attractive solution for those existing uses of CO2. Then, there’s having CO2 as an input into carbon-based products – fuels, building materials, advanced materials, and more. Then there is sequestering the carbon dioxide in various ways for removing it from the atmosphere.
We also want to work with people who understand the subsurface geology of the Earth’s crust for the sequestration. It is a very sophisticated task and we want to work with people who understand that and can do it safely, sustainably and cost-effectively.
What is next for Global Thermostat?
We are actively building out the infrastructure of the company on the deployment side to be able to satisfy the increasing demand that we’re seeing for our solution. We are identifying those next partners and projects that we want to work on to deploy our technology as quickly as possible to scale to a mega ton level in the coming years.
We’re designing our next scale, the next size up where we would use essentially the same fundamental technology but put it in a bigger core unit. We are starting to think about projects that are at those hundreds of thousands and then millions of tons of scale. We are finalizing that design as well.