Tech

Inside Charm Industrial’s big bet on corn stalks for carbon removal


In 2018, Reinhardt and three others co-founded Charm (a combination of “char” and “farm”) to build a business around what they see as a more promising approach. The original plan was for biomass gasification, a process similar to pyrolysis but performed at higher temperatures, to produce biochar and hydrogen. They expect the latter to be the real money-maker.

But the company found that collecting biomass and transporting it to a centralized gasification facility was too expensive, because biomass “too fine. “It’s bulky, heavy, and unwieldy, which increases handling and transportation costs — a painful lesson that biofuel companies learned more than a decade ago.

In 2020, Charm’s lead scientist, co-founder Shaun Meehan, had a bright idea: if the company was willing to do what Reinhardt describe is a “half gasification,” which produces bio-oil instead of hydrogen, which can be fitted to the back of a semi-trailer. The company can then go straight to the farms and perform the process at the edge of the field.

Currently, Charm, which has about 30 employees, pays farmers to pick up unwanted plant material left over after harvest. It is also looking at implementing a similar process with trees and plants removed from forests — for example, to prevent fires or the consequences of drought. Separately, the company set out to find out if it could use the bio-oil obtained to clean steel and iron production, the dirtiest industry sector (see related story).

The business model wouldn’t make sense any other time (and it probably doesn’t in this moment). But an increasing number of companies are willing to pay the high costs of carbon removal and storage as a way of balancing their own emissions, to help support emerging markets, or as a form of charity because climate. To date, about 40 organizations have purchased tons of removals from the company.

Charm’s CEO Peter Reinhardt at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco.

WINNI WINTERMEYER

Reinhardt said the company hopes to eventually reduce costs to $50 a tonne of carbon dioxide removed and stored as it scales up operations. First, it plans to build a fleet of semi-trailers equipped with fast, high-powered pyrolysis machines developed in-house. Eventually, the company also hopes to create a combine harvester with a pyrolysis unit that can pick up and transfer crop carcasses wherever they fall in the field, saving on collection, packaging, and storage costs. move materials.

Economic difficulties

Observers say Charm’s approach to carbon removal and storage offers several advantages over other methods.

It promises to lock in carbon in the very long run, while options like planting trees or changing farming methods to keep more carbon in the soil can quickly be reversed when trees die or fields are tilled. It prevents emissions that can occur in many cases.





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