Kilimanjaro Energy: towering ambitions

Mount Kilimanjaro

Over the last decade, Nathaniel “Ned” David, a Harvard and Berkeley-trained PhD., has co-founded five technology companies that have collectively raised more than $700 million in financing. One, Syrrx, made a diabetes drug. A second, Achaogen, is developing a potent antibiotic. A third, Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, a pioneer in the field of  “aesthetic medicine,” is working on an injectable drug that will reduce localized fat–no more double chins!–and it was his experience there that led Ned into the world of clean energy and climate change.

There’s nothing wrong with helping people to look better, he told me when we met recently, but it wasn’t enough: “I was feeling a little ennui around what I was doing.” His son, Magellan, had just been born. “I suddenly had this desire to work on something of great moral urgency,” he said.

Ned David

That’s no longer an issue. Ned, who is a boyish 43, helped start Sapphire Energy, an algae company, on whose board he still sits, and last fall he became the president of an audacious San Francisco-based startup called Kilimanjaro Energy. It goal? To harvest CO2 from the atmosphere and use it to make transportation fuels with a much lower carbon footprint than gasoline or diesel.

The name of the company says it all:  “We’re going to try to make fuels, while simultaneously saving the snows of Kilimanjaro,” Ned says.

Kilimanjaro Energy is one of a handful of startups working on technologies to efficiently remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  The others are Global Thermostat (see my blogpost A Global Thermostat?) and Carbon Engineering. All three have their roots in academia, and each is pursuing its own technology for C02 capture.

The oldest of the trio, Kilimanjaro Energy, which was formerly known as Global Research Technologies, was started in 2004 by Klaus S. Lackner, a brilliant physicist who is a professor at Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science  and a pioneer in the world of CO2 capture from the air. It was funded in its early years by the late Gary Comer, the founder of Land’s End and a well-known philanthropist.

While there’s nothing magical about capturing CO2 from the air–it’s been done by the Navy for decades in submarines–the challenge, from a climate change perspective, is finding ways to do so at a reasonable cost and then devising a business model to pay for the machines, which would require lots of capital. One way to think about the problem is by measuring the costs of capturing CO2 directly from the air to the costs of reducing emissions by using solar or wind energy instead of coal. Right now, financing clean energy is cheaper that paying for carbon capture, but that could change.

David has a couple of business models in mind, both of which  involve making productive use of CO2, which he calls “the largest waste stream, by an order of magnitude,  that humanity makes.”

One option is to capture the CO2 from the air and use it for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). Today, oil companies pay for CO2 which they push underground to recover what’s called “stranded oil.” More than 100 EOR operations are currently underway in the U.S., most in the Permean Basin in Texas and Oklahoma and in Louisiana. “If I had a million tons of CO2 today, and I could magically send it anywhere I want it,” David says, “I could sell every ton of it.” Of course, the environmental benefits of this scheme would be limited by the fact that it would bring more oil out of the ground.

An environmentally preferable  business model for Kilimanjaro Energy would use the captured CO2  to feed algae, which would then make transportation fuels. The goal there, David says, would be “a closed-cycle fuel, meaning that CO2 that’s emitted when we burn the fuel is offset in its production.”

Here David’s relationship with Sapphire Energy could prove useful. “Algae’s the way to go in the long run,” he says. “It’s the most productive organism we have to produce oil molecules.”

Of course, governments and polluters could also pay to capture carbon, as they now do under the EU’s carbon regulation scheme, but prices are low–about $20 a ton, not nearly enough to pay for carbon capture or clean energy development.

Interestingly, Kilimanjaro Energy is the first of the carbon-capture startups to raise venture capital. Arch Venture Partners, which manages about $1.5 billion (and where Ned David has been a partner), invested about $3.5 million last summer.

Still, David is the first to say that the company has a lot of work to do before commercializing its technology. The company has fewer than a dozen employees, and it’s still working in a lab. (See below.) “Most of our technical risk is in the future,” he says. ” We have not solved all the problems.”

On the other hand, rising oil prices and the ever-increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 will create big problems that, if all goes well, Kilimanjaro Energy will one day be poised to solve. Global demand for cleaner transportation fuels is only going to increase. Says David: “It’s a huge opportunity.”



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