Houston company could provide answer to Elon Musk’s $100 million question

Karimi's technology can turn carbon dioxide into 30 different molecules, creating substances useful for Musk’s home and his envisioned developments on Mars

Moji Karimi’s phone started buzzing. Messages poured in through text, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Twitter; basically any avenue where friends and family could share Elon Musk’s $100 million tweet.

The Tesla co-founder and CEO — and world’s richest man, per Bloomberg — pledged to donate $100 million to support the “best carbon capture technology.” Transitioning to a sustainable energy economy is a top priority for him.

But his other priority, as the founder of SpaceX, is colonizing Mars. And there, the atmosphere is roughly 95 percent carbon dioxide.

Karimi, the co-founder of Houston-based Cemvita Factory, has a carbon capture and utilization system that could fit both priorities. Its technology can turn carbon dioxide into 30 different molecules, creating substances useful for Musk’s home in Texas and his envisioned developments on the Red Planet.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., speaks during a discussion at the Satellite 2020 Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 9, 2020.

“I think he’s doing this for Earth,” Karimi said. “However, if while you do that you could also enable another solution for Mars, then why not?”

When traveling to Mars, astronauts must take — or create — their food, water, oxygen and rocket fuel. This has researchers scrutinizing which Mars assets could be repurposed for survival.

On NASA’s Perseverance rover, for instance, which is set to land on Mars on Feb. 18, researchers will test technology that turns carbon dioxide into oxygen. This can be used for breathing, but, more importantly, it can also be used as propellant to launch rockets off the Martian surface and back to Earth. Liquid oxygen could be used as an oxidizer that helps burn the rocket fuel, such as liquid hydrogen.

SpaceX is looking to turn Mars atmospheric CO2 into methane rocket fuel. On Twitter, Musk said combining carbon dioxide and water from ice on Mars will create methane that can be used in its Starship vehicle being designed to carry people to the moon, Mars and beyond.

Karimi believes Cemvita Factory’s carbon capture and utilization system could complement these technologies. His device would turn carbon dioxide into sugar, which could be eaten by the astronauts or used as an ingredient to make other nutrients, such as vitamins and proteins.

Converting carbon dioxide into sugar, like the process of photosynthesis, was the original focus of Cemvita Factory when Karimi and his sister Tara Karimi co-founded the company in August 2017.

But then, the siblings realized their system could turn CO2 into more than just sugar. Cemvita expanded to the oil and gas sector, offering to turn their carbon dioxide emissions into the feedstock used to create plastics and polymers.

This is accomplished by using genetically engineered microorganisms, which eat the carbon dioxide to create a new molecule, such as ethylene.

Ethylene is used to create a wide variety of plastics, including food packaging and bottles. Petrochemical plants use high-heat, high-pressure systems to create ethylene, but it’s also found in nature. For instance, ethylene is a gas emitted as a banana ripens.

So to turn carbon dioxide into ethylene, Cemvita takes the ethylene gene from the banana and places it inside a microorganism. When that microorganism eats carbon dioxide, it creates ethylene.

This occurs inside a bioreactor that doesn’t require high pressure or heat, thus requiring less energy.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, a large independent oil and gas company, invested in Cemvita in 2019 and is one of its early customers. Cemvita is working to create larger bioreactor systems. By 2050, it hopes to capture and reuse 1 gigaton, which is equivalent to a billion metric tons, of CO2 each year.

Karimi hopes this ambitious goal can capture Musk’s attention. Cemvita plans to apply for the $100 million as more details are released.

Musk is an environmentalist, said Rick Tumlinson, founder of the SpaceFund venture capital firm and the New Worlds Institute nonprofit research organization. And his carbon capture pledge could stand on its own.

But it could also be a preemptive action to help offset SpaceX activities that create emissions. Colonizing Mars will require many, many Starship launches. And each one will burn a large quantity of gas, which produces water vapor and carbon dioxide.

“SpaceX, like many other newer space firms, is trying to be as green as it can be while not forgoing efficiency,” Tumlinson said in an email. “Burning methane produces carbon dioxide and water in the atmosphere. Contrast that with NASA’s monstrous Space Launch System, which emits a much nastier brew of gases, carbon and aluminum particles from its solid rocket boosters — which some scientists believe live on for a long time in the upper atmosphere, and may add to global warming.”

In a statement, NASA said, “Compared to other human activity, the impact of rocket launches on surface air quality is not significant.”

Karimi hopes his company will win the $100 million funding being offered by Elon Musk to the company with the best carbon capture technology.

It said solid rocket boosters were previously used, and studied extensively, during the Space Shuttle Program and were shown to have minimal lasting impact to the environment. In addition, the agency strives “to be a leader in reducing the use of ozone-depleting substances,” and it works to design robotic spacecraft, launch missions and conduct basic research in ways that minimize impact on the global environment.

“NASA uses the vantage point of space to increase understanding of our home planet, improve lives, and safeguard our future,” the agency said.

The latest on NASA’s Space Launch System: NASA rocket test ends early due to conservative test parameters

Having someone of Musk’s prominence tweet about carbon capture can also raise awareness and inspire more business moguls to consider the technology, said Tip Meckel, senior research scientist at the Gulf Coast Carbon Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

“A single tweet can raise the profile for hundreds of thousands of people,” Meckel said. “I wonder how many people Googled carbon capture for the first time in their life.”

The Gulf Coast Carbon Center is funded by the Department of Energy to store carbon dioxide after it’s been captured. Meckel said the gas is turned into a liquid and pumped underground for storage. The idea is to return carbon from where it was extracted.

The Department of Energy has provided his center with roughly $100 million to put CO2 underground and monitor it. This agency has also invested hundreds of millions into carbon capture projects across Texas.

So Musk’s $100 million is a lot of money to be donated by one person. And it could be a life-changing amount of money for a startup. But in the world of carbon capture, Meckel said it’s just the start.

Those seeking more sustainable technology hope it’s an inspirational start for Earth and an aspirational future for Mars.

Source: LMTonline, 2021-01-29.