Image Source: https://www.bloomberg.com/
Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the fund helmed by Bill Gates, led a funding round to raise $11.5 million for California-based startup C-Zero Inc.
The company has developed technology to lower the greenhouse-gas emissions from using natural gas. Instead of burning the fuel to produce carbon dioxide and water, C-Zero passes the gas through a mixture of molten salts. Doing so splits methane — the main component of natural gas — into hydrogen gas and solid carbon. When the hydrogen burns, it produces water; the solid carbon goes to landfills.
The company’s tech appealed to the prominent clean-energy fund because the world will need access to gaseous fuels like hydrogen at large scales and low costs to meet climate targets. Developing the process “needed both cheap natural gas and the world to care about reducing CO₂ emissions,” said Zachary Jones, C-Zero’s chief executive officer. Both those conditions have been met only in recent years, with the fracking boom overlapping with the urgency to act on climate change.
Splitting methane, which is made up of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms, into hydrogen and solid carbon is not difficult in terms of the chemistry. The main challenge now is lowering the cost when the technology is scaled up.
C-Zero can make about 10 kilograms of hydrogen per day in a small pilot plant. The next step is to build a demonstration unit that can make 100 kg of the gas per day, followed by a commercial unit that is capable of producing more than 1,000 kg per day. Most clean-energy startups fail at the scaling stage.
Natural gas doesn’t just hurt the environment when its burned. Producing and transporting the fuel also adds to the greenhouse-gas burden. Leaky wells and pipes dump unburned methane into the atmosphere, where it traps as much as 86 times more heat than similar amounts of CO₂. “The benefit of our technology is that it can be a deployed on the well head,” said Jones, reducing some methane leaks.
Alongside BEV, the other investors in C-Zero include Eni Next, the venture arm of oil and gas giant Eni SpA, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is developing hydrogen turbines. Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, is also a backer of BEV.
C-Zero isn’t the only one trying to deploy the tech. Nebraska-based Monolith Materials Inc. is also hoping to find a market for the solid carbon produced as a byproduct of turning methane into hydrogen. Australia-based Hazer Group Ltd turns natural gas into hydrogen and graphite, a form of carbon that can be used in lithium-ion batteries.
“I wish that our carbon had value. That’s a much better business model,” said Jones. If only 10% of the natural gas the world consumes today was converted to hydrogen through this process, Jones estimates that the global market for solid carbon would be saturated. “That’s the difference from our competitors. We’ve been 100% focused on making the lowest cost, cleanest hydrogen we can,” he added.
If not put to use, solid carbon has to be discarded as a waste. As yet, no one has done it at a scale for there to be studies on the environmental risks. But Jones is confident that it would be like dealing with the ash from burning coal, which the world produces in the hundreds of millions of tons each year and which often just sits in landfills.
Much of the world’s hydrogen today is produced from natural gas. The current method, however, produces large amounts of carbon dioxide, which are dumped in the air. Countries such as the U.K. and Germany are working on incentivizing the use of carbon capture technology, which will see CO₂ injected deep underground. Jones argues that it’s much better to deal with solid carbon than worrying about buried CO₂ gas.
There’s also the risk that the company may struggle to get enough climate-conscious investors to bet on a technology that helps prolong the use of fossil fuels. Jones said that, once scaled up, C-Zero’s tech can eventually be used on methane produced from biological sources, often referred to as renewable natural gas.