How to build an artificial tree

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We are just outside this humble building in Berkeley, California. There is a team of 50 people working on one of the biggest problems of climate change. Twelve was founded by three Stanford University graduates who are trying to capture carbon and reuse it so that they can re-enter the supply chain and become the cornerstone of everything from shoes to the next high-end car. We will talk to Kendra Kuhl, one of the three co-founders and CTO. She will show us around the laboratory and answer our questions about whether this is feasible.

Can you explain in the most basic terms what you did and what you plan to do? Because when I read it on paper, it sounds like crazy, ambitious, maybe too much like a pie in the sky. This sounds very difficult.

Therefore, the company’s core technology is a catalyst that allows us to break down carbon dioxide molecules and convert the carbon, oxygen and hydrogen in the water into new compounds. So we can get carbon dioxide from anywhere. Instead of emitting carbon dioxide into the sky, it is better to turn it into necessities. Or, if combined with direct air capture, we can extract carbon from the air and then convert it into something useful.

The idea of ​​reusing the carbon we have extracted is a key part of the circular economy. This is a huge hope that society can redesign the way goods are designed, manufactured and recycled. Some of the world’s largest companies, including Apple, are embracing this concept, and the company expressed its desire to use recycled materials to make all of its products. Ford is already using so-called waste powder to make 3D printed car parts.

As the late architect Buckminster Fuller once said: “Pollution is nothing but a resource that we have not harvested. We allow them to disperse because we have never known their value.” If this is such an important idea, why don’t hundreds of startups try to do it?

I think it is difficult. Other inputs are renewable electricity and water. Therefore, we rely on the increasing impact of renewable electricity on the decarbonization of our grid to truly change carbon dioxide emissions.

Earlier this month, you conducted the first round of A round of financing. I think you raised 57 million dollars. In terms of mature technology, where are you now?

So today in our laboratory, we have a system that can convert kilograms of carbon dioxide every day. We hope to increase tons every day.

Okay, let me see what we have here, Kendra.

Yes. This is the system we use to deposit the catalyst and form a layer on the polymer electrolyte membrane. Then this is what enters our system for carbon dioxide conversion.

Sorry, is this an additive manufacturing type thing?

Yes, similar, but super small. The layer we are depositing is much thinner.

How thin is it? Are we talking about as thin as hair?

I can’t tell you exactly how thin it is…

Really? Oh, that is proprietary.

…Because this is part of our core technology. but…

…thin.

In terms of its performance, this really looks a lot like a 3D printer…

Yes, we have a solution containing catalysts and additives. Then it is just a solvent with other ingredients dispersed in it. It is then fed into one of the nozzles, and then pressed down onto the substrate by the airflow. The solvent dries, leaving a solid. But you can already see that we can cover a very large area.

Correct. So I have no idea what will happen next. So once you have this coating, what then?

In the end, we can put it in a cell as large as the deposition area.

In terms of scale, this machine…is it bigger, or do you have many such machines?

I think this is a different layout. So more is the roller conveyor belt type process, more continuous production. To be honest, this is a relatively small system. You can make it as big as your entire room or entire facility.

I mean, I think technology gives us choices. So we have a choice. So we can choose to do something about climate change because we have such technology.

Correct. So we are not doomed, or we may be doomed. Or you hope we are not destined.

Yes, I don’t think we are doomed to fail. I mean, I think some of the advantages of this solution are that it does not require you to believe whether carbon dioxide is sick and causing climate change. Our goal is to be cost-competitive in scale. Therefore, the use of materials made of carbon dioxide does not incur economic costs.

The other thing we should look at is the actual prototype. This can convert kilograms per day…

Really?

…carbon dioxide.

This is how the prototype you made?

Yes.

Row.

One of the advantages of these types of systems is that they are a bit like…just run on their own. Just like you open it.

It is like a dishwasher.

Literally, this is like a dishwasher. You don’t have to adjust things or take care of things. You have to replace the filter every three months, but this is not like rocket science.

Anyone can do it.

Yes, I think anyone can change the filter. So yes, the next scale from here will be the volume of several containers, but it may not be in a container, it may be a sliding.

In essence, it looks like an enlarged version. But it’s a bit like a chemical plant, but quiet, running at ambient temperature, without any smell or smoke or anything you might associate with a typical chemical plant.

This almost looks like a caricature of actual things.

Mad Scientist Lab or something, right?

Yes, yes, what are we looking at, Kendra?

Yes, in order to develop a catalyst for the conversion of carbon dioxide, we have conducted a lot of tests and optimizations. The bracket is designed to allow us to control the input of carbon dioxide, water, and electricity, and then measure the energy utilization rate we get from the battery, what the temperature is, and what type of optimal operating conditions are.

So you are adjusting the input, running the same process and seeing what the output is?

Yes. Therefore, we are iterating conditions, materials, and battery hardware as quickly as possible to truly achieve the performance we are looking for. This is an artificial tree.

Okay, so describe what an artificial tree is, because the concept is incredible.

Correct. I think if a tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, water from the ground, and sunlight as a source of energy, it will turn carbon dioxide into sugar. Our equipment is similar because they take carbon dioxide and water from the input we provide them, plus energy in the form of electricity, and then convert carbon dioxide into other types of intermediate products instead of sugar.

So this may be a stupid question. But just like decades later, if Brazil’s tropical rainforest continues to decrease like in the past 30 years… I mean, I don’t want to say in any way that we can make up for this, and it doesn’t matter. However, will more and more people finally complete this work? For example, in the absence of real trees, do we have more and more artificial trees?

I mean, the energy must come from somewhere. Therefore, when we connect it to a solar panel, the energy here can come from the sun. But I would say that the benefits provided by trees are more than CO2 reduction, right? I mean, this is a complete ecosystem. This is obviously a piece of metal. So I won’t…I won’t trade a tree.

Well, you prefer real trees.

I would prefer that we keep all the real trees and have these systems in addition to them.

Yes.

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