Caltech startup Captura is pioneering a novel technology, developed with foundational help from RSI, for capturing CO2 from seawater in the gigaton quantities required to impact the overall CO2 balance in the environment. Since its founding Captura has won a $1m XPrize, attracted >$30M in investment and begun scaling up the process at its ocean-side facility at AltaSea, in the port of Los Angeles. CX Xiang, research professor of applied physics and materials science at Caltech and, along with Professor Harry Atwater, a co-founder of Captura, talks about the challenges he and his team have faced in transforming the technology from lab experiment to garage startup and now into a pilot-scale venture with a 40-person team that is attracting interest from around the world.
What prompted you to undertake the daunting task of starting a company while still a researcher at Caltech?
The academic environment at Caltech is uniquely positioned to explore high-risk, high-reward research projects and mentor next generation talents in science and engineering. My team has been actively involved in a variety of translational sustainability initiatives, focusing on carbon capture, conversion, and the generation and compression of renewable hydrogen. However, the academic setting has its limitations, particularly in scaling up technologies and commercializing them. Recognizing this gap, Harry and I were compelled to establish our own venture to contribute to solutions for the rising atmospheric CO2 levels, assembling a team equipped to tackle these significant challenges, and Captura was founded to commercialize the large-scale carbon removal technology using oceanwater and electrochemistry.
What have you learned about the process of taking an innovation developed at the bench through each stage of building at larger scale, sized for real world operation?
Assembling a highly functional team that evolves together with organizational growth is essential. Advancing a prototype from laboratory to field application requires a committed, multidisciplinary team. Although Captura's fundamental method is rooted in electrochemistry, deploying the system in the real world is absolutely a team effort where scientists and engineers with a diverse expertise need to work together effectively. Another lesson I've learned is that although scheduling a discovery isn't possible, you can definitely devise a plan and steer the team in executing it, even when it involves elements of high uncertainty.
Last fall, Captura installed and validated the CO2 capture system in the fast time of 3 months. What surprises did you encounter and how did you solve unexpected problems?
The journey was full of surprises—from insufficient electrical power at our site and delayed barge arrivals to extended lead times for essential items. Moreover, we had to relocate the pilot system amidst the tumult of Tropical Storm Hilary! The success of this endeavor can be attributed to the exceptional dedication and skill of Captura's operations and pilot teams, who successfully navigated these formidable commissioning challenges at AltaSea.
Captura and its pilot have attracted interest from around the world. What is next for company?
Our immediate goal is to commission our final pilot project, a 1000 ton/year system, in Norway by the end of 2024. Looking ahead, Captura is looking to bring the first commercial-scale plant to fruition. This ambitious plan entails validating the performance across all pilot sites, scaling our proprietary materials and systems, and actively engaging with stakeholders, plant developers, and off-take supporters.
What other research are you exploring that could also be transformative in sustainability?
My Caltech team continues to explore various of electrochemical approaches for sustainability applications. We are working on exciting new ways of producing and compressing low cost H2 directly to >350 bar in a hybrid electrochemical cell coupled with a catalytic reactor where the intermittency nature of renewable electricity can be best utilized. We are exploring long duration energy storage mechanism using highly functional membrane materials in acid and base battery, and we are developing novel catalysts and methods that convert captured CO2 into valued products via photoelectrochemical and thermochemical processes.