The sky is anything but the limit for an Israeli company developing special carbon-catching balloons that it says will provide the world’s first affordable, scalable method for capturing carbon from the atmosphere.
The population of the world emits around 50 billion tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) each year, mainly through burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. This is the main driver of global warming and climate change.
The race is on not only to reduce the use of those fuels, which also pollute the air, but to remove excess CO₂ from the atmosphere and store it, somewhere, for a long time.
Last month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear that removal is essential if the world is to meet the Paris Agreement’s climate goals and if governments and companies are to meet their net-zero pledges.
But “technological, economic, institutional, ecological-environmental and sociocultural barriers” mean progress is not being made fast enough, it said.
According to Nadav Mansdorf, CEO of High Hopes Lab, based in Ramat Gan in central Israel, around half of the GHG are absorbed by nature each year, while the rest will have to be removed by humanity just to keep the pace of climate change where it is.
Enter the carbon-capturing balloon, designed by the company’s chief technology officer, Eran Oren, a physicist and an alumnus of the army’s elite Talpiot program.
Last week, the United States Patent and Trademark Office informed the lab that Oren’s innovation will be receiving a patent.
“Carbon freezes at around minus 80 degrees Centigrade (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit),” explained Mansdorf, who has been building social and environmental impact companies for the past 14 years.
“We can find those temperatures 15 kilometers (nine miles) above the Earth.”
Oren has created a balloon made of a special material, that, filled with hydrogen, can reach this altitude, carrying a payload.
As the wind blows through the payload, the carbon in it is separated and stored in a kind of freezer compartment.
The weight of the carbon then brings the balloon back down to earth, the solid carbon transforming into carbon dioxide gas as it descends.
The whole journey takes around two hours.
The carbon dioxide can then be sold to industry, for processes ranging from plastic production to the creation of carbonated drinks. It can also be buried (sequestered) underground, at high pressure, where it will eventually turn into limestone.
The biggest payload trialed so far weighed just a few kilograms, Mansdorf said. “The key thing is that we know it works.”
The first milestone, due to be reached within the next year, will be to catch 50 to 300 kilograms (110 to 660 pounds) of carbon per day, per balloon.
The second milestone will be the “gamechanger, and the numbers show that we can do it. We’ll be able to catch one metric ton (2,205 pounds) of carbon, per balloon, per day.”
The timing for reaching that target will depend on available funding, Mansdorf said.
“The physics is working and the scientific aspects are validated. There’s a question of engineering that depends on the level of resources we will have.”
The company to beat is Climeworks, whose direct air capture facility in Iceland uses fans to capture ambient air, separates the carbon dioxide, mixes it with water, and injects it underground, where it will eventually turn into rock.
The factory can capture 1,000 metric tons (984 Imperial tons) each year, at a cost of around 1,000 euros per ton (just over $1,000).
“For our first milestone, we’re aiming for $100 to $250 per ton,” Mandsdorf said. “For the second milestone, we’re hoping to get to below $40 to $50.
“This is not about how to catch carbon. The unique thing about our solution is that we can do it at a huge scale, at a very low cost,” he said.
That cost is for capture, not for storage, though Mansdorf said there were already many places suited to carbon sequestration and that the balloons could be operated nearby.
But the main aim was eventually to recycle the carbon by selling it to industry.
“We were thinking about carbon capture for a long time,” Mansdorf recalled.
“Eran phoned me at 4:30 a.m. one morning, to say that he’d found the solution, and from there, the roller coaster began.
“We met everyone possible and asked them to tell us why we were wrong, why this was a dumb idea, but everyone — 100% of them — said, ‘You’re crazy. How can we join you?'”
Initially believing that their idea was so off-the-wall that nobody would invest, Mansdorf and Oren started out using their own funds.
But after they conducted experiments and realized that the idea would work, the investments started to flow in. The first round saw $1 million raised within three weeks, according to Mansdorf. The second brought in $5 million. The company is currently in the midst of a major, third funding round, and, according to Mansdorf, the interest is “huge.”