Wanted: Start-Ups That Can Turn Captured CO2 Into Vodka, Jewels

Source: By Chris Martin, Bloomberg • Posted: Sunday, July 19, 2020

Vodka and diamonds are being enlisted in the fight against climate change.

With a little ingenuity, both can be made by manipulating carbon dioxide that’s been captured from the air, which means their production could actually help stem global warming. The market for such products is promising enough that a group of clean-tech incubators is on the hunt for start-ups that can create them.

New York University’s Urban Future Lab is working with Greentown Labs and Fraunhofer USA to help grow businesses that have figured out how to turn CO2 into luxury goods and more. The group’s “Carbon to Value Initiative” offers start-ups a home for initial development, access to venture capital, and manufacturing partners.

“We mean to jump-start the carbon technology industry,” said Pat Sapinsley, managing director of cleantech initiatives at Urban Future Lab. “We’ll use our corporate partners to scale-up quickly. It’s necessary to stay below a 2-degree Celsius increase,” she said, referring to the warming limit widely believed to be necessary to prevent catastrophic climate impacts.

Technology to produce goods from CO2 has been around for a while, but the products themselves have gained little traction because they’re more expensive than similar ones manufactured in traditional ways. The incubator group is hoping to change that by focusing on high-value items — consumers may be willing to pay a premium for luxury goods that combat climate change.

Luxury Goods

The vodka producer, Air Co., joined Sapinsley’s group last year. The company aims to replicate Elon Musk’s strategy with Tesla Inc., by selling a premium product that will help build scale so they can get to larger markets like jet fuel.

“They use renewable energy to split water to make hydrogen and combine that with CO2 to make ethanol and sell it for $65 a liter,” Sapinsley said. By expanding capacity on sales of pricey liquor, they can bring the costs down to compete against a 40-cent jet fuel. “You need to have high-value products, even diamonds, that will lead to success of carbon conversion.”

Combined, the incubators have helped hundreds of startups improve clean technologies and raise funds to expand, and they expect to get hundreds of applications for promising new carbontech products and services during this three-year effort.

“There is an urgency to cost-effectively capture carbon emissions and the only way for the new technology we need to get to market is through engagement with industry,” said Emily Reichert, chief executive officer of Greentown Labs. “We help them de-risk it to reduce cost and get it to scale.”