Blog: Carbonity: Turning Carbon into Capital to Solve the Climate Crisis
How we’re going to use autonomous drones and biotechnology to clean the atmosphere and kickstart the future
Pat Brown. Impossible Foods. They’re building a meat-free burger based completely on plant material to reduce the need for cattle farming. Conjoule. They’re working on developing a peer-to-peer network for people to trade solar energy on through the blockchain. Elon Musk — maybe you’ve heard of him? — he’s using Tesla to build a vision of a cleaner future that doesn’t rely on fossil-fueled cars.
I think those are some of the smartest people in the world right now, and they’re working on some of the most important projects out there.
Unfortunately, none of those companies are going to matter in 11 years.
In 2018, the UN released a report saying that the world has 12 years before the global climate reaches a point we can’t recover from and climate catastrophe takes over. That’s 11 years in 2019. There is no way switching to electric cars, or solar energy, or plant-based meat is going to change that in 11 years.
Almost all the issues we see in the world regarding climate change — natural disasters, rising sea levels, climate refugees — can be traced back to one thing: greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere turning up the dial on our global thermostat.
The current approach to tackling climate change is primarily to try and reduce our carbon emissions, be it completely vegetarian meat substitutes or electric cars. That makes sense, right? Carbon dioxide is one of the most prevalent greenhouse gases that we produce.
However, there’s one big problem with that strategy: even if we reduce our CO2 emissions to zero, there’s still carbon in the atmosphere. If carbon dioxide It’s time we rephrase the question from, “How can we reduce carbon emissions on Earth?” to:
“How do we get rid of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?”
We hope to answer that question with Carbonity — a next-generation company dedicated to ushering in a new age of climate and materials technology.
Our Current Efforts Are Flawed
There are two big problems with how we approach this problem right now:
- Carbon sequestration, or carbon capture, exists only on the terranean level. All we do it with it is either convert it into other types of fuel or store it away. Doesn’t that seem like a waste?
- Carbon dioxide conversion methods are highly inefficient and most involve converting it into other forms of organic fuel. Don’t let the “organic” fool you, it’s still burned up, meaning net change in carbon emissions is basically 0.
Atmospheric carbon capture has been an idea for years, and recently scientists are saying it may be the only way we can prevent a climate catastrophe. The only questions are:
- How can we make it economically and environmentally sustainable?
- How can we make it globally scalable?
That’s where we come in.
How We Can Do It Better
In order to tackle these questions, we need an easily replicable program that uses a scalable, environmentally-friendly mechanism to convert carbon dioxide into a saleable, valuable product that can generate revenue to sustain itself.
Here’s how we want to deliver on that:
The Program: Drones
Carbonity intends on launching a fleet of specially-equipped solar-powered autonomous drones set to patrol areas of high atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, like manufacturing facilities, cities, etc. These drones carry a carbon capture and conversion mechanism and will periodically return to ground level to unload. Run by artificial intelligence, they’ll be able to navigate autonomously, avoid obstacles, and optimize routes.
The Process: Rubisco Filter
A filter of immobilized Rubisco, the most common enzyme on the planet, will be the mechanism that helps capture and break down carbon. Rubisco is an enzyme found in plants that helps them do photosynthesis. Recent studies have shown that when suspended and self-assembled with other nanostructures, we can use it to artificially recreate the Calvin-cycle, part of photosynthesis.
The Product: Carbon
The Rubisco-nanostructure filter complex will allow us to capture pure carbon. When the drones return to earth, the carbon will be collected and sold to graphene manufacturers. With the multitude of carbon in the atmosphere as well as the demand for carbon as a building tool, Carbonity has the potential to serve as a profitable intermediary between the Silicon Age and the Carbon Age: using the past’s mistakes to build the materials of the future.
You can think of Carbonity as a company that’s trying to develop a flying forest. After all, plants have been doing this for millennia — we’re just taking it to the sky.
Now that we’ve got a summary, let’s go deep into the science making this possible:
The Program: Autonomous Solar-Powered Drones
Using artificial intelligence to scale up and replicate the drone system
Most of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is concentrated in the troposphere, or about 11 km high. (A bit over 36, 000 feet for our American friends!) Currently, the highest-flying drone in the world flies at about 65, 000 feet in the sky, so altitude will not be a problem.
The biggest barrier in the market today is not the cost of producing a drone — in 2010 it cost around $4 million to build the USAF General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, and the $1.5 billion invested in drone technology by VCs since 2012 has, without doubt, lowered the cost — but the cost of consistently operating it.
Drone pilots, technicians, analysts — they all add to the cost of operating a drone. Expenses per hour during flight can range from $2,500 to $15,000. However, this cost can be alleviated with the introduction of AI-piloted drones.
Using machine learning to analyze carbon concentration patterns in the atmosphere, Carbonity drones will be able to pilot themselves and navigate without any human intervention required.
On top of that, as the drones collect atmospheric data, artificial intelligence can determine where the drones should go, automating task execution based on machine learning insights.
As the cherry on top, solar-powered drones would rarely, if ever, need to come down to the ground level to charge, meaning the program facilities could be considerably smaller. Solar panel efficiency doubled from 2015 to 2017, so we have no doubts we’re going to have solar panel technology capable of powering a long-range, high-altitude drone for an extended period of time.
Key takeaway? Solar-powered autonomous drones have a lot of benefits:
- Autonomous flight and navigation lower costs of maintenance
- Machine learning insights enable task execution with human orders
- Solar power means rare trips back to land for recharging
We intend on partnering with drone development firms like General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Lockheed Martin to create the vessels for our carbon conversion solution. Together, these make for a cost-effective and scalable implementation plan.
The Program? ☑️
The Process: Rubisco-Enabled Carbon Capture and Conversion Filter
Using bioengineering and nanotechnology to break carbon down in an environmentally-friendly and sustainable way
Rubisco, or ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase, is one of the most plentiful — and one of the most important — enzymes on the planet.
Enzymes are proteins that help to catalyze (or enable) very specific chemical reactions. Rubisco is one such enzyme found in the stroma of plant chloroplasts, the parts of the cell that are needed for photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis describes the process of plants using CO2 and water to form organic compounds like glucose, and as a waste product, oxygen. Naturally, scientists and start-ups have viewed this process with interest, since it seems to have the potential to clean up our atmosphere, right?
In reality, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The common misconception is that plants turn the CO2 into oxygen, but that actually comes from the water. Rubisco enables CO2 “fixation”, a process that describes it attaching to another compound as it turns into an organic compound like glucose — with some steps in between — so carbon is never actually isolated.
It does mean you can make biofuels, only to have those burned up and pollute the atmosphere again. Most people working on this probably are willing to settle for carbon neutrality — but not us.
Our plan is to intercept the compound partway through this process by make sure the enzymes that catalyze it aren’t present. Then, an absorbent solution will be passed through the vessel containing the molecule, exit as a solution rich in carbon and ready to be dephosphorylated and deoxygenated. What the heck does that mean? We’ll show you:
This carbon dioxide conversion mechanism can be described as a kind of carbon scrubber. Here’s an example of one made by EnerCarbon that uses porous microfibres:
Currently, carbon scrubbers (devices that clean the air of carbon dioxide with direct air capture) are mostly on the ground level — car exhaust pipes, smokestacks, etc. There, they can be exposed to a whole lot of CO2 easily. However, in the troposphere, such a consistently strong supply of CO2 might be harder to come by — that’s why we need Rubisco to do that part for us.
When carbon dioxide enters a plant cell, Rubisco helps it to react with a molecule called ribulose-1,5-biphosphate. After this happens, the compound that they form almost immediately splits into two molecules of 3-phosphoglycerate, or 3-PGA.
This is where we plan to intercept the molecule and start breaking it down into its simpler components using other enzymes.
Rubisco can be immobilized in a pre-assembled nanostructure, as can other enzymes like phosphatase and types of dehydrogenase and oxidase. All of them together can form different modules that can be intentionally arrayed in a vessel to yield a certain product — in our case, carbon.
To give an analogy, the internal filter components of our mechanism is a bit like an assembly line: Each module produces a different thing, which only a certain other module can act on, so they all have to perform their function in a specific order.
Rubisco is specific to RuBP and CO2 and will turn them into 2 3-PGAs. Then, phosphatase — which is specific to 3-PGA, let’s say — will break it down further. This goes on until the filter has separated the substrates into almost pure carbon. At this point, an absorbent solution will pass through the filter which can later be sold to buyers.
Key takeaway? We can use Rubisco and other enzymes to make our carbon scrubber:
- Rubisco and other enzymes can be immobilized and organized in multiple nanostructures in the filter to produce certain compounds — carbon monomers
- We can use these nanostructures inside of our filters instead of microfibres
- A carbon-specific absorbent solution will remove any excess molecules
The Product: Carbon Sale and Manufacturing
Selling carbon to manufacturers to produce high-quality, pristine graphene and serve a wide variety of markets
One of the big challenges with carbon sequestration is figuring out what to do with it. Some have tried turning it into fuel, others just store it away. With our process, we have access to almost pure carbon — why not just use that?
We strongly believe the world is at a tipping point between two futures: we can choose to be reactive and solve tomorrow’s problems with today’s technology, OR we can be proactive and use today’s problems as an opportunity to solve the future’s problems.
Advancements in nanotechnology and materials science give us no doubt that we’re about to enter the carbon age: graphene, carbon fibre, carbon nanotubes. Light, durable, and strong, carbon materials have a range of utilities that are going to be fundamental to building a better world. At Carbonity, we want to be the bridge between that world and this one.
Unfortunately, right now, pristine carbon graphene can cost up to $1,000 per gram.
We think that’s ridiculous.
By selling carbon in mass quantities to manufacturers like Elcora Advanced Materials and Grafoid, we want to enable them to lower the price of producing carbon products, increase profitability in the sector, encourage new entries and innovations in the industry.
Revenue gained from this stream will be used to maintain and grow Carbonity to a global scale.
Boom. Using bad atmospheric carbon for good.
Key takeaway? Selling our collected carbon is a good plan:
- Provides revenue to sustain the business
- Drives down the price of carbon materials manufacturing
- Incentivizes innovation in the sector
We’re In The Endgame Now…Let’s Plan For It
Carbonity is a big project, which is why we plan to roll it out in 3 phases:
Phase 1: Initiation — Years 1–3
Here, we hope to accomplish a few things:
- Mass produce Rubisco
- Develop and test our carbon conversion filter prototype.
- Planes fly in the troposphere, where we plan on deploying our drones in the future. Before we do that, we plan on testing our filters by forming partnerships with airlines and attaching our filters to their planes.
Phase 2: Development — Years 4–7
After gaining some revenue from Phase 1 and receiving funding, we plan on adding the next big part of our solution:
- Partner with drone manufacturers to develop solar-powered autonomous drones
- Develop our carbon conversion mechanism as a drone attachment
- Deploy a fleet of drones over target areas to collect carbon
In this phase, “target areas” means locations with high concentrations of CO2 in the immediate atmosphere. Governmental agreements will be made to ensure execution is happening legally and safely.
Phase 3: Expansion — Years 8–10
This is the long run goal of Carbonity and the point where we want to be able to sustain a healthy atmosphere:
- Reduced the atmospheric CO2 concentration to 350 parts per million
- Expand globally to multiple countries
- Begin efforts to modify a more effective version of Rubsico
- Develop drones independently
The Clock Is Ticking
A flying forest. It sounds crazy, because it is. It’s also necessary. Y Combinator recently put a call out for startups addressing the climate crisis in new and innovative ways — this space is picking up speed.
This is the industry we need to save our planet, and if it takes some crazy thinking to make it happen, we have every intention of doing it. Because Carbonity isn’t some moonshot.
It’s our only shot.
We hope our message and our mission resonates with you! We’re always looking for people to learn from and would love any guidance and advice you have for our company. If you want to tell a friend about Carbonity, send them this article, or tell them to check out our website, carbonity.ca where they can download our one-pager.
As well, feel free to reach out to any of the members of our team on LinkedIn, we’d be happy to chat!