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Carbon Reform raises $3m to retrofit buildings with CO2 capture

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US startup Carbon Reform has raised $3 million for its modular CO2 removal technology that can be integrated with existing heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. 

  • Carbon Reform’s technology enables commercial building managers to improve their indoor air quality, reduce their energy costs and capture CO2 as a saleable product. 
  • HVAC systems account for around 15% of global energy consumption, contributing to climate change while exposing building owners to higher prices and regulatory risks. 
  • Technological innovations that make carbon capture in buildings both accessible and affordable will be vital in the sector’s transition to net zero. 

Carbon Reform’s $3 million seed funding round was led by climate-focused venture capitalist Azolla Ventures, with additional participation from Plug and Play Ventures, Gaingels, Preston Schell and the Rise of the Rest Seed Fund. Their investment will be used to install the first full-scale pilot units of Carbon Reform’s technology, expand the current facilities and hire new employees. 

“As a women-led and LGBT-owned enterprise, we’re grateful and refreshed to have the support of investors who not only believe strongly in our climate and health mission, but also embody the fundamental values we have as founders around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, at every level of our organization,” said Jo Norris, co-founder and chief executive of Carbon Reform. 

“We are excited to have the support of world-class investors that are helping us realize our mission of democratizing access to carbon capture technology,” agreed Nick Martin, fellow co-founder and chief operating officer. “They each bring a unique skillset to our team, be it industry connections, culture-building strategy, or subject matter expertise.”

Carbon Capsule device removes CO2 from commercial buildings 

Carbon Reform has developed a device, named the ‘Carbon Capsule’ that can be integrated with any commercial HVAC system as a simple retrofit. A portion of the system’s ventilated air, which contains the CO2 exhaled by the building’s occupants, is diverted into the Capsule for purification and carbon removal. 

Pollutants that may have been picked up during the air’s circulation, such as volatile organic compounds, particulate matter or pathogens, are removed by an initial filtration system while CO2 is captured by Carbon Reform’s proprietary mesh. Once this mesh is fully saturated, it is automatically removed to a chamber containing calcium hydroxide (lime). The lime reacts with the captured CO2 to form limestone, which can then be sold for industrial applications. 

According to Carbon Reform, using its device in a structure the size of the Empire State Building could enable an annual 5,000 tons of CO2 to be captured. In New York, this volume of carbon would currently be valued at around $1.2 million. 

Furthermore, the purified air released by HVAC systems upgraded with a Carbon Capsule can be recirculated throughout the building. This provides a healthy environment for the building’s occupant, while reducing the amount of clean air that would otherwise be drawn in from outside. In doing so, it improves the efficiency of the HVAC systems, lowering their associated energy costs. 

Although the Carbon Capsule will initially only be available for commercial buildings, Norris has confirmed that it, or a similar device, could later be developed for residential households. 

The costs of existing HVAC systems 

HVAC systems play an important role in managing the comfort and safety of indoor air quality. They enable building managers to control factors such as temperature, humidity, airflow and cleanliness, giving them direct influence over human health and productivity levels. 

On the other hand, HVAC systems can contain or develop various microbial contaminations that can become serious health issues in themselves. They also account for between 40 and 60% of the energy used in buildings, amounting to around 15% of global energy consumption. 

This energy use comes at a high cost to building owners, an issue that has been further exacerbated by the current energy crisis. It also contributes to climate change through the burning of fossil fuel resources for electricity, and has therefore become a focus of new regulatory measures.  

The UK, for example, tightened its Energy Performance of Buildings Regulations in 2020 to include stricter inspections of HVAC systems with a focus on improving efficiency, reducing energy consumption and cutting carbon emissions. In the US, meanwhile, new HVAC efficiency standards and testing requirements will come into force from 1 January 2023. 

While these measures will add further pressure to building owners, they are becoming increasingly necessary as the demand for HVAC systems continues to rise. This trend is being driven by a number of factors, including population growth, urbanisation, and heightened levels of air pollution.   

Among the main drivers of HVAC demand is the increasing frequency and severity of extreme temperature conditions, raising the cyclical concern that the chosen solution for addressing these changes is only making the problem worse.

Indeed, research from the Rocky Mountain Institute and the International Energy Agency suggests that the projected growth of room air conditioners alone would result in over 130 gigatons of CO2 emissions by 2050. This equates to between 20% and 40% of the global carbon budget available under the 2°C goal of the Paris Agreement. 

The decarbonisation of buildings will require accessible, affordable carbon capture 

Although their contributions can hardly be considered insignificant, HVAC systems are just one component of the building sector’s climate impact. Overall, the built environment is responsible for almost 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings operation accounts for around 27% of these emissions, while 20% are generated by building materials and the construction process. 

In order to achieve net zero by 2050, the buildings sector would have to cut its direct emissions by around 50% and its indirect emissions by as much as 60%. This includes achieving a 45% reduction in energy consumed per square metre by 2030 from 2020 levels.   

As the use of equipment such as HVAC systems continues to rise, there is a limit to the energy and emissions reductions that can be made. With researchers warning that the energy efficiency potential of appliance technologies is reaching its maximum saturation point, there is an urgent need to develop alternative solutions. 

In cases where further emissions reduction is considered impossible, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned of the need for a rapid expansion of carbon removal technologies. Currently, most of these technologies have been developed with a focus on industrial facilities or direct air capture, with little consideration of how carbon can be captured on the level of individual buildings. 

Furthermore, mechanical carbon capture is yet to reach a price that would be viable for the average owner of a commercial building. At present, the development of these solutions is largely reliant on long-term corporate agreements that pay by the ton for future carbon removal on an immense scale. 

Carbon Reform’s technology offers an alternative approach that makes carbon capture on the building level more attractive, accessible and affordable. Not only does it enable building managers to support their occupants’ health with a purified air supply, but it also provides them with an opportunity to unlock additional revenue through the sale of captured carbon or participation in carbon credit schemes. By simultaneously improving the efficiency of HVAC systems, the Carbon Capsule provides the additional benefit of operational cost savings. 

Such innovations could prove vital in driving the building sector’s urgent transition to net zero. 

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