One cooling tower down, 1,999,999 to go

August 13, 2021
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Noya retrofits cooling towers to suck CO2 directly from the air around us. By piggybacking on existing cooling tower infrastructure at industrial sites all around the U.S. and the world, we are rapidly accelerating the world’s transition to carbon neutrality. Collectively, the 2 million cooling towers in the US represent an opportunity to remove up to 10 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year, which is ~50% more CO2 than what the U.S. emitted in 2019.

The good news is: our technology works. We are up and running at our first commercial site, where we are successfully capturing CO2 from the air and regenerating it at a +95% purity, with work underway to make this number higher.

Now we’ve got our work cut out for us. We’ve got a kickass team of go-getters from places like MIT, Caltech, Yale, and Stanford that got us this far. But our next 100 sites across 10 US cities are ready to go. Our ability to stand up operations at these sites and scale up our carbon removal process by a hundred-fold is missing one key piece.

That missing piece is you. If you are a chemist, chemical / mechanical / materials engineer, or somebody who wants to be part of giving our future generations an even better place to live than you had, this post is for you. We’re looking for the type of people who are intellectually curious, optimistic about the future, and thirsty to join a mission-driven team. If this is you, read on to learn more about our vision and the nuts and bolts of our process.

Carbon removal & cooling towers: putting existing infrastructure to work

Even if we somehow eliminated all carbon emissions overnight, global temperatures would rise a little more and stay hot for hundreds if not thousands of years. That means heat domes, super strong hurricanes, summer flooding, displacement of humans, and eradication of plants and animals are all baked into the climate cake [1]. And things will keep getting worse until we globally achieve net zero emissions.

One of the tools we have to accelerate our progress towards achieving carbon neutrality is atmospheric carbon removal. People have created many ingenious designs to capture CO2 from our atmosphere, and most require some combination of fans, heat, and lots of water. We spent lots of time tinkering with machine designs to bring these three things together until we realized we didn’t have to build anything new — the U.S. has an entire fleet of machines already combining fans, heat, and lots of water. We call them cooling towers. So we put our heads down and started building a way to convert the country’s industrial cooling tower fleet into a distributed direct air capture network.

We piggyback off existing, distributed cooling tower infrastructure to keep our upfront capital costs low — as much as an order of magnitude lower than today’s most advanced, large scale carbon removal plants. Not only is it more economical, it also takes a fraction of the time! Many advanced, large scale plants today take years to fully install and commission. With a small team of less than five people, we built our first commercial direct air capture process in less than four months, and that timeline has nowhere to go but down. The set of limited and highly repeatable retrofits we install onto these machines will convert the existing cooling tower fleet into a distributed direct air capture network – a national sea of carbon vacuums that will cool the Earth for generations to come.

Early on, we knew our distributed capture process would likely capture a lot of CO2, but we never could’ve dreamed exactly how big the potential was. If you’re like me, you probably didn’t learn in middle school that the U.S. is home to a lot of cooling towers — over 2 million to be exact [2]. Combining this huge number of cooling towers with the amount of CO2 an average cooling tower can capture, we estimate the U.S.'s cooling tower infrastructure is capable of capturing as much as 10.3 billion tons of CO2 / year. (As a comparison, the U.S. emits 6.6 billion tons of CO2 / year.)

And because we're retrofitting instead of building new, the entire decision making process of where and when to build changes. We use a business model that benefits both us and our operating partners, turning a traditional cost driver into a profit center. The only question is: how much money can your cooling tower generate on its own?

How cooling towers will reverse climate change

A cooling tower is essentially just a box containing a fancy set of showers moving water, and a huge fan moving air. Normally, they use this mashup of air and water to provide cooling to an industrial process. (See this video for an example.) We don’t interrupt this process, but by adding our blend of clean CO2 capture chemicals into the water these cooling towers use, the CO2 in the air moving through the tower dissolves into the water and reacts with our blend to form a stable intermediate. We then run this CO2-rich water through processing equipment installed alongside the cooling tower. This equipment uses heat, pressure, and other forces to regenerate the CO2 in a pure form, which then gets pressurized for storage and transportation. By minimizing any changes the cooling tower needs to install this process, we make it an easy sell for equipment operators to get started. Once we have our hands on this captured CO2, we’ll put it to work in everything from utilization to underground storage.  Our initial customers are small businesses in the food and beverage industry (think bars, restaurants, craft brewers, etc). Our cooling tower partners win too because they get a cut of this revenue. As our CO2 production costs get cheaper, we will also begin injecting it underground and converting it into more valuable products.

Because we’re using different chemistries than what are typically used in direct air capture, there are tons of unexplored possibilities for how we might optimize the conversion to different feedstocks to help with this effort.  

This is where you come in.

In our first year, we scaled our process from a shoddy backyard prototype that attracted the bomb squad more than once to an operating commercial pilot that utilizes a cooling tower to capture CO2 from the sky. We have 100+ buildings ready to install our process and a fresh round of funding from investors like Y Combinator, Fifty Years, Lowercarbon Capital, Soma Capital, the Softbank Opportunity Fund, and others to fuel our growth. At this point, we are only limited by the speed at which we can solve the difficult, but new and unoptimized problems of building a distributed direct air capture process.

Building a distributed direct air capture solution in densely populated urban areas is an immense engineering challenge, and it will require re-imagining many common and long-existing operations to meet the specific needs of this process. If you’re a Chemical Engineer, Mechanical Engineer, Material Scientist, business generalist, or someone who is optimistic about our ability to solve this problem, and passionate about making planetary-scale impact, explore our open opportunities here.

It took us ~100 years to get to the point where the amount of CO2 in the sky is putting our world at risk, and we have less than half that amount of time to reverse this problem. It won’t be easy, but I’m one of those congenitally optimistic people who believes humans can solve any challenge we put our minds to.. If you are also optimistic about our species' future success and want to be a part of the solution, let's chat.