Carbon removal

A view from the start line for direct air capture

Heirloom’s new plant will remove carbon for big name investors, but not in big quantities.

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Row of contractors at the Heirloom direct air capture plant

Photo credit: Heirloom

Row of contractors at the Heirloom direct air capture plant

Photo credit: Heirloom

A lonely stretch of road 70 miles east of San Francisco boasting little beyond a wastewater treatment plant and an equipment rental yard might not sound like the prime spot to unveil technological innovation. But at lunchtime on Thursday, that stretch was the place to be, at least for those in climatetech.

The event in question was the opening of the country’s first commercial direct air capture plant, developed by San Francisco startup Heirloom. Located in Tracy, California, the plant will shortly begin to deliver removals to the industry’s early purchasers including Microsoft and Stripe.

The crowd — with nametags ranging from Silicon Valley Bank and JP Morgan to Amazon and Mitsubishi — was rewarded for making the trek with a tour of the plant and a high-profile speaker lineup that included Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, and Pacific Gas & Electric CEO Patricia Poppe.

The event capped off a big week for the still-nascent CDR industry; on Tuesday, BlackRock made a $550 million investment in Occidental Petroleum subsidiary 1PointFive’s West Texas Stratos project, and Charm Industrial also announced the opening of a second Colorado location for its biomass processing operations.

But the ribbon-cutting also underscored the long road ahead for the technology. Despite the triumphant vibe and the cadre of energy transition VIPs who took the podium, Heirloom’s project is significantly smaller than others set to come online in coming years and is more of a blueprint for scale than a way to make a tangible dent in global emissions. Indeed, the plant’s annual capacity of 1,000 tons is equal to around one second’s worth of global emissions. 

Meanwhile, the wider CDR industry is not on track to reach the 2050 removal goals outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; speed is of the essence. On this point, Secretary Granholm was blunt.

“As I say to my team, and everywhere I go, we have to act with urgency,” she told the crowd in Tracy. “No sleep! No sleep, Heirloom — get cracking on removing that carbon pollution!”

Growing rocks with wind

Heirloom’s process uses a kiln to extract carbon dioxide from limestone; at the Tracy plant, the gas is stored in a 30-ton tank, which is hauled off site every few weeks and handed off to CarbonCure, Heirloom’s sequestration partner. CarbonCure then uses carbon mineralization techniques to store the captured gas in concrete.

Back at the Tracy site, the leftover calcium oxide powder is spread onto trays, which are stacked 40 feet high and left to absorb carbon dioxide from the wind that blows through the facility over the course of three days. (And when it’s not breezy, fans serve to keep the air cycling through.) 

The Tracy plant — which is slated to be up and running at full scale in the next few months — is almost completely automated, and runs with help from artificial intelligence and robots. Heirloom modeled the chemical reaction algorithmically, said chief commercialization officer Max Scholten, so that the array of tray-monitoring robots making their way up and down the stacks can determine exactly where in the process each tray is. These robotic rock babysitters then transfer completed trays to the kiln to be processed, and the cycle begins again.

Heirloom's array of tray-monitoring robots make their way up and down the stacks to determine exactly where in the chemical process each tray is. (Photo credit: Heirloom)

Construction on the project started at the end of the year’s first quarter, Scholten said. 

The crowd’s enthusiasm for Heirloom’s speed to market and modular design, though at times reaching campaign rally levels, was dampened somewhat by the realities of the industry’s ever-present growing pains.

In a recent “liftoff” report, the Department of Energy classified carbon removal markets as often “unpredictable and inconsistent,” and warned that voluntary markets might not support the market scale required for the country’s net zero goals. The report pointed to a string of challenges, including the permitting process for Class VI wells, and a lack of standardized storage and transport infrastructure.

And there’s also the question of costs. DOE has set an ambitious $100 target for price per ton of removal as a part of its plan to get the country to net zero emissions by 2050. Heirloom anticipates its own removal costs will land around $300 by the end of the decade — and Heirloom itself should be profitable by then, Scholten said. He declined to share the company’s current price, but DAC today is generally estimated to fall between $600 and $1,000 per ton of removal.

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There has also been concern that DAC is something of a fig leaf to fossil fuel players, many of whom are already exploring the technology’s possibilities.

Heirloom CEO Shashank Samala received enthusiastic applause for his nod to that tension (and to the company’s principles for “high-road,” responsible carbon removal) at the Tracy ribbon cutting.

“Heirloom has made its commitment to take what we call the high road of carbon removal,” he said. That means the Tracy plant “removes CO2 without excusing companies to compound more CO2.”

But among would-be removal purchasers, there isn’t market-wide consensus about the fossil fuel connection. For instance, Amazon, which committed to purchase 250,000 tons of removal from 1PointFive earlier this year, is keeping its options open and is putting its dollars towards the technologies of biggest impact.

“There's been some talk about removals only versus reductions,” head of carbon neutralization science and strategy Jamey Mulligan told Latitude Media last month. Amazon’s “first principles view” is that removal and capture have the same outcome: “We don't really have the luxury right now of picking winners,” he added.

Market gains

Heirloom is among the highest-profile players in the CDR industry, but it’s far from the only one. Swiss DAC firm Climeworks is credited with bringing the world’s first commercial plant online, and its Orca plant in Iceland currently removes 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

Meanwhile, 1PointFive is planning to bring its commercial Stratos plant online in 2025, and Colorado-based Global Thermostat, which was one of the first DAC companies to enter the market back in 2010, unveiled its own commercial-scale solid absorption project earlier this year.

Then there are earlier-stage startups like Mission Zero, which are hoping to compete with Heirloom on elements like energy efficiency. At less than 800 kilowatt hours per ton of removal, Mission Zero’s electrochemical separation process uses up to four times less energy than other thermal regeneration approaches, the company said.

In Tracy, Scholten said the kiln is the most energy intensive component of Heirloom’s process. The company reports that the current energy requirements of its technology are 2,500 kWh per ton of removal. Long term, Heirloom is aiming to get energy use at the Tracy facility down below 2,000 kWh per ton, Scholten added.

Compared to others in the market, Heirloom is relatively young, and has scaled incredibly quickly: from petri dish-sized operations in 2020 to the country’s first commercial plant and one of the largest ever market commitments in hand in 2023.

But that speed doesn’t necessarily mean Heirloom will come out on top, Carbon Direct chief scientist Julio Friedmann (self-described “friend of the family”) told reporters.

“They will be overtaken, and soon,” Friedmann said, pointing to significantly larger projects set to come online in the coming years, including 1PointFive’s Stratos and Heirloom’s own Project Cypress in Louisiana, which is expected to remove 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. The Tracy plant puts Heirloom in a prime position at the DAC commercialization start line, but doesn’t give it much of a headstart. 

“There's only a handful of companies that are arguably in the lead,” Friedmann said, adding that he thinks they’re all doing great work, and wouldn’t necessarily pick a winner just yet.

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