Turning waste products into carbon capture
Entrepreneurship has run in Henrietta Moon’s family for generations. Her father was an entrepreneur, as was her aunt – the latter selling her company to a large mobile phone company in its early days. “It was always thought [being an entrepreneur] was the last thing I want to become,” Moon says. “There are some streaks of that in the blood, but I wanted to be a diplomat or a lawyer or something – I thought that was the way to change the world.”
Changing the world is what Moon wanted to do. “I did always want to change the world by challenging the status quo or defending rights, or something generally purpose-driven,” she says. It spurred Moon on to generate the idea that would become Carbo Culture.
In 2016, she launched Carbo Culture with Chris Carstens, the company’s chief technology officer, after meeting him in the United States at Singularity University. Carstens had worked in the climate technology space for a couple of decades. The two hit on an idea: of sequestering and storing carbon, which they pinpointed together as a key contributor to the climate emergency. They’d do that by transforming waste wood residue into biodegradable charcoal that stores carbon for 1,000 years. Today, the importance of reducing carbon emissions seems self-evident. But back then, it was seen as something unusual. “When we started, there was no carbon market,” Moon says. “It was the very early days for the climate movement.”
The technology behind Carbo Culture stemmed from university research that had been ongoing for more than a decade. Carbo Culture bought the rights to the technology from the university lab in order to develop it further. The technology was at a prototype level at the point it was licensed, and became commercialised through Moon and Carstens’ hard work.
That commercialisation came at a convenient time, because the voluntary carbon offset has flourished – a boon for the company. Selling carbon removal credits is one of Carbo Culture’s three pillars of business, alongside two others: one, selling excess heat made in the production of biodegradable charcoal, and two, selling the biochar to use and apply into soil. “Our ambition is to do something useful in terms of climate change,” says Moon. “By 2050, we need to be able to remove 10 gigatons, and 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually. It’s a trillion-euro market. There’s a lot of room for players in that market, but we want to be one of the leading ones.”
Carbo Culture is at an early stage of its development, but plans to be one of the leading lights in this space. So far, it has already made good ground. The company now has 20 employees, growing to 30 in the coming months. Hiring relevant staff is a challenge, given the growing scale of the industry and its relative newness. “How do you hire world-class talent for the market, and you know the technologies have not existed before?” says Moon.
Growing staff is only part of the challenge: the company’s infrastructure also needs to grow. “Of course, we need to get to some scale to break even as a company,” she says.
Carbo Culture’s first facility in California sits within a commercial-scale reactor in an R&D setting, but Moon plans to expand the company’s capacity within the next three years. A €2.2 million EU grant will help fund a test automation rig in Helsinki, and act as a stepping stone to a full-scale facility. She hopes that in three years there’ll be a full-scale plant, that will be operating at a net profit. Following the first facility, the company will start deploying a pipeline of projects. “We plan to have tens of commercial facilities in the next five to 10 years,” she says, all of which will take raw material and transform it into the end product.
What that raw feedstock is depends on the contracts the company signs, and can vary significantly. Moon foresees a way of her technology improving the circular economy by utilising what would otherwise be wasted – such as food waste. One raw ingredient, for instance, is nut shells. One company that Carbo Culture contracted with used to discard its nut shells on the side of the road – or as part of stuffing for teddy bears, or shipped to Asia. If that isn’t possible, then the discarded shells are often burned – causing its own problems for the environment. But those nut shells are now being diverted to Carbo Culture, where they're put into the company's proprietary reactor and the carbon is converted into a form stable for 800 years. The technology can also be used to turn peach pips and sawdust – or any kind of residue material that would ordinarily give off carbon dioxide while decomposing – into a useful, carbon-sequestering source of energy.
The purpose of Carbo Culture is vital at a time when the environment is being affected significantly by climate change. “This summer in London, it was 41 degrees, and I couldn’t go out with my baby,” says Moon. “I think things are going to get pretty bad before they get good again in terms of climate, if this is the rate of change that we are looking at.” It’s a crucial company making a real, significant difference to our planet – with challenges ahead. “I hope in 20 years we’ll have finally understood that the long-term decision-making needs to get in front of the short-term gains,” she says, “and, really, we need to be thinking about handing over a planet that is just not burnt into ashes for the next generation.”
Biography / key highlights
2011 Catapults non-profit EdTech company Rails Girls into a wide-reaching global community
2013 Co-founds creative technology education company Mehackit in Helsinki, and takes part in the 10-week Global Solutions Program at Singularity University in California, where she meets her Carbo Culture co-founder, Chris Carstens
2016 Co-founds and becomes CEO of Carbo Culture
2019 Becomes an alumna of Stanford University’s founder community StartX
2021 Makes it on to the Bloomberg New Economy Catalyst list