Curtailing carbon with direct air capture
In 2020, Dr Nicholas Chadwick, a British material scientist, pivoted to the budding field of carbon removal technology. He had previously worked on interventions to improve water quality in countries such as Mexico and India, building sensors to detect arsenic and fluoride, but grew frustrated with the pace of progress. For him, real world, scalable impact was a key motivator and he believed that carbon capture was something that had the potential to deliver it.
Carbon removal technology is considered by many to be a crucial tool in tackling climate change. Eager to throw some of his own “grit, sweat and tears” into the field, Chadwick believed that he could have more impact as a “disruptive” startup, than by working within existing energy corporations. He met Drs Shiladitya Ghosh and Gaël Gobaille-Shaw, who shared his background in chemical and energy research, and together they founded Mission Zero Technologies to begin developing direct air capture technology that can remove CO2 as cheaply and efficiently as possible.
Three months later, in August 2020, they raised £250,000 seed funding thanks to a partnership between Deep Science Ventures, and a global mining company, which had committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2040. In 2022 the company received a further £3.6 million from a well-known investment fund, which was one of the largest funding rounds for a UK-based startup of its kind. Today, it is now poised to deploy its first plants.
Bold measures are needed if global carbon emissions are to be tempered. Every year, 42 gigatons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere; 1,337 tons per second. The Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) hosts a digital clock that counts down the time that remains – at our current rate of emissions – to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. It’s running down fast. Yet the move to decarbonise industries and supply chains, along with a transition to renewable energies, is not going to happen fast enough to solve global warming within that time frame.
Direct air capture, which uses a system often compared to the human lungs, sits “at the nexus” of these problems, explains Chadwick. Fans are used to suck air in, then the CO2 is stripped from it. This atmospheric carbon can then be permanently stored or used to provide a sustainable carbon feedstock for industry, reducing the footprint of the countless products and processes that still rely on it.
Not everyone is convinced about direct air capture. A common criticism is that it is an expensive and energy intensive process; that it uses more energy than it saves. “It’s going to be expensive,” says Chadwick. “All advanced industrial technologies are, but when you start deploying and learning from it you can bring that cost down.”
Mission Zero’s solution is designed to be as low-cost and scalable as possible, making use of “off-the-shelf” technology that can be recontextualised for a new use.
This means working with patent-free, widespread tech that is straightforward to procure. This approach is pragmatic, but also designed to give the startup a commercial edge in a buzzing field. Mission Zero Technologies wants to exploit pre-existing supply chains to achieve scale ahead of its competitors. “The technology is novel, but it has scalability baked into it at the early stage.”
Put simply, the product being produced by Mission Zero is a couple of shipping containers to be integrated on site, which provide an on-demand source of sustainable CO2. This modular approach makes deployment and adaptation simple, and by getting as many systems on the ground it hopes to get ahead of the curve while creating the opportunity to learn and develop its technology collaboratively with the companies it is deploying with. Bigger capacity simply means adding more shipping containers, meaning there is no need to construct one large system, which can be slow and costly.
The first project is now on the ground (details are still under wraps) and two others are set to deploy in the coming year, in the UK and Canada. By the end of 2024 there will be 550 metric tons of capture capacity across three different locations. Relative to the scale of emissions in the atmosphere, it is a drop in the ocean, but Chadwick is optimistic for the future. “We’re very early in a process; we want to be removing a gigaton of CO2 a year,” he says. “At this stage, it is about learning about the technology, deploying, and going through that process.”
Dr Nicholas Chadwick
Graduates with a Master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Nottingham
Awarded a PhD in Chemistry from UCL, before working on water purification, semi-conductors, and carbon capture
Joins Deep Science Ventures and two months later co-founds Mission Zero Technologies as Chief Executive Officer, along with Drs Shiladitya Ghosh and Gaël Gobaille-Shaw
Raises £3.6 million funding from a well-known investment fund
Deploys Mission Zero Technologies’ first direct air capture project, with two more planned for 2024 in the UK and Canada